Carolina Panthers

Gone 'til December

Even when they've been out of contention, the Panthers have always played well in December under coach John Fox. A look at his month-by-month record in the regular season:












Even when they've been out of contention, the Panthers have always played well in December under coach John Fox. A look at his month-by-month record in the regular season: Wins Loses Wins Loses Wins Loses Wins Loses Wins Loses Wins Loses

CHARLOTTE -- You could tell because of the ease with which it rolled off DeShaun Foster's tongue that the phrase had been hammered into his head over the years, mechanically and methodically.

"I just think it's like he says all the time, 'People remember what you do in December," the Carolina Panthers' running back mentioned.

The "he" is Panthers coach John Fox. You can tell the line is part of the Fox lexicon, although it's buried under a pile of "It is what it is" and the rest of his well-worn book of motivational platitudes. Probably, that's because by the time he gets around to saying it, the Panthers are either onto bigger and better things, or the season's shot and they're planning for next year.

But there's a reason he drags it out annually. The Panthers are best under Fox in the last month of the calendar, a run they hope to continue today at Jacksonville.

While Fox's all-time record of 49-43 (.533) is fine, his 15-8 mark in December (.652) speaks best to his work. They've closed strong in years with no hope (2002 and 2004), and they've finished in years they did (2003 and 2005).

"We don't have any room for error," Fox said Friday. "Typically, people remember what you do in December. In the good years, you usually remember good things and in the not-so-good years, you remember the bad things.

"But a lot can happen in the last month of the season."

Fox is selling hope because that's almost all that's left this year for the 5-7 Panthers.

But the thing about the Panthers' sixth-year boss is his personality's not much changed over the years in which he was pushing them to playoff berths.

"The thing that's good about John, he's got a high motor," assistant head coach Jim Skipper said. "His intensity level's high, he's always on point, and when we get into this situation here, especially when you're still in the hunt, it just magnifies.

"It ain't like he picks it up. He naturally has a high motor, and that's what makes him an outstanding leader."

Fox's latest tweak turned the Panthers around a week ago, although it appeared he might have lost them before there was time.

They had lost five in a row, their annual slide that seemed to torpedo the years they don't make the playoffs. But it wasn't just the losing, it was the dark clouds gathering.

According to several players, Fox unleashed one of his most severe tirades at halftime the previous week, basically dog-cussing his team midway through its loss to New Orleans. Instead of inspiring them, he had thrown a match on a gas can, and his team went up in flames quickly -- turning a close game into a funeral pyre.

That led to another few days of people talking about who was getting fired instead of who was working. Players were growing as uneasy as fans about the quarterback situation, abandoning hope in quarterback David Carr -- who was bad but not nearly the pariah many made him.

So at the same time he protected Carr by installing him safely on the bench, Fox threw the Christmas switch when his team gathered back last week -- telling his players things had been too businesslike, too stiff, not enough fun.

"What happens is, you get on a downslide, everything compounds, you hear all the negative things," Skipper said. "Guys start to press. When you get right back down to it, the natural situation is you play a game, it's fun and you let the abilities show."

So fun became the mantra, and Fox began drilling it into every answer, even if the question was unrelated. After all, he's on a crusade, and crusades have no time for distractions.

Fox was asked last week about defensive end Mike Rucker, who had his best game of the season as the Panthers broke the skid against hapless San Francisco. But the talk quickly shifted from Rucker to what Fox wanted to talk about more, which was sunshine and good times, smiles and laughter.

"We kind of cut loose and had fun. Hopefully, we can move in that direction going forward," Fox said. "I think anytime you don't perform well as a coach or even as a team member, a lot of the emphasis goes on, 'We've got to play harder, we've got to work harder, we've got to do this.'

"If you press too much, which it dawned on me that we might be pressing too hard rather than not playing hard enough, you kind of go back to the basics and enjoy the game and have fun. Obviously, there are preparation things on being trained on what to do and how to do it, but at the end of the day the game is supposed to be fun."

He's clearly beaten his drum loudly enough the players have heard him.

Rucker was talking about the last month, about how they managed to finish strong when there's little realistic chance at extending the season. He broke into a grin and started singing Fox's tune, extolling the virtues of football boiled down.

"I think to a man, when you look at a skid like we went through, you start to look at how's the day look? Is it just kind of gloomy? Are guys talking? Are they acting normal?" Rucker said. "When you reflect, it's like, 'Listen, sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself and you make it too complicated when it's something that's really easy and something you've been doing since day one.' I think that's the key, and really each guy reflecting when you were a child.

"Before the big stadium and before the big checks and all that, you weren't thinking about that. But when you take it back to when you were little, you take all those things out. It was really about playing some pee-wee football, and having fun and being basic.

"When the quarterback drops back there, the up-front guys try to get him down. When the ball's in the air, the DBs try to get the ball out of the air and knock it down. It becomes simple, instead of being so complicated some times."

If Fox has a gift, the last week and a half sums it up. The Panthers were going nowhere, he was perhaps getting closer to packing bags and there was nothing they could point to as being good. It's a young team, but it's one that's looking at significant personnel turnover anyway. So as hard as it might seem to keep them on message, Fox was able to do it, for a week at least.

"Not really," Fox said when asked if the situation made it tougher. "We've had as good a week of practice as we've had all season. These guys, they are going to work hard because they know what's at stake on Sunday."

For many, that's a job, a career, a house they haven't moved into yet.

But for Fox, it's all about creating something people will remember, even if it's only so they forget November.

"I know we don't have the record we'd like to have, but anything can happen," Foster said. "We win these last four games out, we're 9-7. I mean, 9-7 should get you in the playoffs. As long as people see there's a chance, they're going to fight.

"I understood exactly what he was saying. We were trying hard to get out of the situation we were in, the losing streak, the year without a win at home, all that. You lose touch that it's a game, you're doing it for fun.

"I just think he wanted to get back to the way you played when you came into the game. It was good. It was right on the money."

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald