Carolina Panthers

Unhappy Fox tinkers with defense

CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers coach John Fox didn't like the direction his defense was heading to start the season. So he decided to take a more hands-on approach to fixing it.

For the last three weeks, coinciding with the aftermath of the Panthers' loss to Tampa Bay that dropped them to 2-2, Fox has been a fixture in the defensive meeting rooms. That's a significant departure from his previous policy of letting coordinators and assistant coaches handle those gatherings.

"I thought we were struggling there a little bit early, and it wouldn't be any different (with any other group)," Fox said. "I've done it with the offense before and the special teams before. The way I look at it, that's my job as head coach."

Fox tried to downplay the extent of his involvement, but several players confirmed he's been a fixture since the loss to the Bucs.

Historically, he's stayed out of the morning sessions, which take place just before practice.

Retired safety Mike Minter said Thursday that Fox would stick his head in "maybe once or twice a year," over the previous five seasons, and when he did that, it wasn't as if he was laying down the law.

"Not even close," Minter said when asked if such visits were regular occurrences.

"We never looked at it as something where he was trying to send a message, though," Minter added. "It was almost more like he was bored and wanted to drop by.

"When you're in a situation like they were in two weeks ago, you've got to pull it all out. Plus, it's working, so you've got to figure he's going to keep doing it."

Whatever adjustments he's made are paying off, as the Panthers are giving up 49 yards and 10 fewer points per game over the last two outings, and have logged their five interceptions of the year.

"With coach Fox being a defensive coordinator prior to being a head coach, it's kind of his baby," rookie linebacker Jon Beason said. "His approach is just to make it simpler for us, and not necessarily changing what we do, but maybe just explaining it a little bit. He's enjoying being in there.

"Me being a new guy, I can just go by what I hear from the fellas. I know we've always been a great defense around here, and early on we weren't playing like that. So, that's the head coach's job, to kind of step in when things aren't going well. Not that he did anything different, but maybe with him being there, maybe he thinks he's bringing more to the table."

The only danger would be minimizing the roles of his assistants. Fox's staff has been largely intact during his tenure, though former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio left after one season to become head coach in Jacksonville, and offensive coordinator Dan Henning was fired last offseason. Secondary coach Tim Lewis, hired this spring, is the only one on that side of the ball without at least four years' tenure with the Panthers.

But several players said that Mike Trgovac remains in control of the defense, and didn't sense any looming control issues.

"No, they're really meshing and working together," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "Everybody's got their input, and he (Fox) has just got certain points he wants to get across. Trgo is in control of the meeting, going over the big issues. How we're lining up, what kind of defense, what we're trying to do. What to do against specific sets. Then Fox just comes in and adds the minor details to it. So it's kind of like they're feeding off each other.

"I don't see it as that (a problem). It seems comfortable. He's not trying to step on Trgo's toes, or any of the other assistants. It just seems like they're all working together on getting their point across."

The veteran interior rusher laughed and said when he was in St. Louis, former head coach Mike Martz barely knew where the defensive room was.

"He (Martz) just looked at us crazy when things didn't go so well," Lewis said. "He was the guy, he wouldn't even talk to us that week. If we played well and won, he was friends with everybody."

Beason recalled a similar situation in college, when Miami head coach Larry Coker dropped in on then-defensive coordinator (and current head coach) Randy Shannon in 2005, calling out players after they started with a loss to Florida State and then gave up 30 points in a win at Clemson. Coker showed them about 10 plays of film which illustrated effort and mental mistakes, then left. They followed with a 23-3 pasting of Colorado the next week, in which the only points scored by the Buffaloes were on a fourth-quarter field goal after the reserves were in the game.

"Coach Shannon took it personally, and we did too," Beason said of Coker's visit. "The next week we came out and dominated as usual, as we were accustomed to doing."

Former Chicago safety Chris Harris said head coach Lovie Smith (like Fox a former defensive coordinator) seldom came into the Bears' defensive meetings, and only after particularly poor performances.

If nothing else, Harris said having the boss in the room keeps everyone on their toes.

"Yeah, a little more," Harris said with a grin. "He (Fox) goes through, lets everybody know what's going on. It's a good thing. We've played pretty good football these last two weeks. Guys are a little more antsy, a little more on edge. It's good."

Fox didn't discuss the idea with Trgovac beforehand, and dismissed the notion he was undercutting his authority.

"Mike knows. He's the defensive coordinator," Fox said. "He calls them on game day. No different than any coordinator I've had thus far in any phase.

"All our coordinators understand (the input). When you're the head coach you're allowed to do that."