Fox might be in a position of strength

John Fox and the Carolina Panthers finished the season with three consecutive victories. AP Photo/Mike McCarn

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The situation screamed for something dramatic, something climactic. On a third-and-long, John Fox fell back on the old draw play.

Are you surprised?

You shouldn't be. Anything else would have been totally out of character for Fox. Call it deliberate, steady or conservative -- that's the way Fox has done it every day since he took over the Carolina Panthers in 2002.

But we're not talking about any coaching decisions Fox made in Sunday's season-ending 23-10 victory against New Orleans at Bank of America Stadium. We're talking about the way Fox handled a steady stream of questions about his future in his postgame news conference.

“We'll see where it takes us,'' Fox said. “I'm not totally done with today. Like every offseason, there are evaluations and things you look at. I usually talk to my family and see where all of that goes.''

But this offseason isn't quite like any other for Fox. The best coach in franchise history, the man who brought a 1-15 franchise to a Super Bowl within two seasons, is at a career crossroads.

Here's the situation: Fox is under contract with the Panthers through 2010. The Panthers aren't going to fire him. But they aren't going to offer a contract extension.

“We are just getting started with that, so I can't comment at this point,'' Fox said. “I have a year left on my contract. I haven't had any postseason conversations yet. I have an agent who handles those things. I'd like to get through this day and we'll see where it goes after that.''

Vintage Fox -- don't call a double reverse or throw deep for the end zone. Just keep going up the gut and see where it gets you.

“He's staying. ... Well, unless he goes out and gets himself a better job somewhere else,'' a high-ranking team official said.

Translation: Fox might be in the best position possible for any coach. Essentially, he's the coaching version of a restricted free agent. He's not getting fired, and there's around $6 million waiting for him if he comes back and coaches a team that has some pretty strong talent in place for another year. He also can sniff around and see what else might be out there.

Not officially, of course. Fox is under contract and there are NFL rules against tampering. But the NFL's anti-tampering rules were made to be bent and broken, and there are back-channel ways Fox and his agent can find out if there might be a better deal available somewhere else.

By not coming out and firmly saying he'll be back with the Panthers next season, Fox sent a wink to the rest of the league that he's available. Don't think for a second this situation is going unnoticed by any team that might be looking for a coach.

Fox is a very good coach and everybody knows it, especially Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. So why has this situation come down to Fox perhaps taking another job and the Panthers getting draft-pick compensation or him returning for what essentially would be a lame-duck season?

To understand that, you have to understand Richardson. The only majority owner to have played in the league (late 1950s with Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts), Richardson looks at everything from a football and business angle and what's going on here is a perfect example.

On the football side, Richardson likes Fox as a coach and a person. But there's also this nagging little thought that Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons. The owner has to wonder how a team with the likes of Steve Smith, Julius Peppers, DeAngelo Williams and Jon Beason could go 12-4 last year and 8-8 this season. That thought has to get stronger after the Panthers convincingly won their last three games against the Vikings, Giants and Saints. Where was that earlier in the season?

That's where the football side leads into the business side. An underachieving 8-8 season isn't exactly enough to make an owner want to go out and pay a coach a ton of money and commit to him for three or four more years. Money's on the mind of just about every NFL owner these days. With uncertainty about a new labor arrangement, owners are worried about the possibility of an uncapped year in 2010 and a lockout in 2011.

Why give Fox a new contract that would kick in for the 2011 season when there might not even be one? This makes sense from the football and business sides for Richardson. If Fox decides to stay, there's no real risk. If Fox decides to walk, a high salary would be off the books, a good team's already largely in place and Richardson could go out and hire a rising coordinator (I'll throw out some names just for the fun of it: Russ Grimm and Mike McCoy) for a lot less money. The new guy's contract could include a stipulation that he doesn't get paid if there's not a season in 2011. Forget the Bill Cowher talk. I don't think he's ever been on Richardson's radar, and I don't know that Carolina is as much on Cowher's radar as so many people think.

In fact, Fox and Cowher could be competing for jobs. This is totally hypothetical, but suppose some other owner decides he'd be willing to offer Fox a long-term deal that would pay him for 2011 no matter what.

Fox has to consider it and consider it strongly. Sure, he likes Charlotte, where he recently built a new home and his family is ingrained in the community. He's also got a decent roster, especially if you patch up the quarterback situation and figure out what to do with Peppers over the long term.

What it all comes down to, really, is Fox deciding if the lack of an offer of an extension is more of a slap in the face or a slap on the wrist. Is it a blow to his ego and something that his relationship with Richardson can't overcome? Or is it just a statement that says, “We like you enough to pay you $6 million for next season and, if you win, we'll take care of you?"

The only one who can really decide that is Fox, and as I said earlier, he's in a very good situation. There have been rumblings Buffalo might be interested if he comes available. Then, you have to at least wonder what would happen if the Giants did something drastic with Tom Coughlin after a disappointing season.

Remember, Fox was defensive coordinator in New York before he took the Carolina job. He's a darling of the New York fans, media and ownership. Sure, Richardson is very close with Giants ownership and this could be a delicate situation. But Richardson's created the situation, and there's no doubt he gave extensive thought to every scenario and is prepared for every possibility.

It's really all up to Fox -- and what might truly be out there for him. But keep one thing in mind: Fox has made a pretty good career of take the conservative approach. Would he pull a surprise and go running off to New York, Buffalo or somewhere else?

Think about it for a second. Taking a long-term deal somewhere else actually might be the most conservative thing Fox can do.