Fox not addressing reports of return

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While Carolina Panthers coach John Fox deflected questions about his uncertain future on Wednesday, several of his players and a rival coach weren't shy in defending him.

It was part of a bizarre day as Fox acknowledged his contract hasn't been extended, yet didn't want to discuss perhaps entering 2010 as a lame duck coach in the final year of his deal.

"I don't get into that right now," said Fox, 75-60 in Carolina with a Super Bowl appearance, but yet to post consecutive winning seasons. "Our focus is to get through the season and I have an agent that deals with that."

While agent Bob LaMonte didn't return messages Wednesday, Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis, center Ryan Kalil and even New Orleans coach Sean Payton came to Fox's defense. The Panthers (7-8) enter Sunday's season finale against the Saints (13-2) ensured of missing the playoffs for the fifth time in Fox's eight seasons.

"I know this, he and his staff aren't going to have problems finding work. Let's just say that," said Payton, a longtime friend of Fox. "I think he has a lot of confidence in that team and I think the team, the same way, has confidence in that coaching staff.

"It's evident by the way they played against Minnesota and the way they played against New York. If it's not Carolina, maybe a week goes by and he'll be in good shape."

The Panthers have won three of their last four games, including upsets over the Vikings and Giants the last two weeks, ending the possibility of Carolina having its first season of 10 or more losses under Fox. The wins came despite numerous injuries, and were apparently enough that owner Jerry Richardson decided against firing Fox with a year and more than $6 million left on his deal.

"He's done a great job," Lewis said. "I think the guys on this team really rally around him."

The Charlotte Observer reported Monday that Richardson will not extend the contracts of Fox, his assistants or general manager Marty Hurney past next season. Richardson, who hasn't spoken to reporters in more than a year, remained silent on Wednesday. Fox bristled when asked if he had talked to Richardson.

"I am speaking English, right?" Fox replied, referring to his earlier declaration that he wouldn't answer more questions on the subject.

Fox's future has been a hot topic because of Carolina's disappointing season and the number of big-name coaches out of work.

"I hear around town everybody calling for [Bill] Cowher," said Kalil, referring to the former Pittsburgh coach who lives three hours away in Raleigh. "Everybody wants Cowher to come. Cowher is an awesome coach. I'd love to play for somebody like Cowher, but what's he going to do differently from Fox? He's going to play good defense and he's going to want to run the football. I mean, what are we exactly talking about here?"

But it's possible Fox could decide he wants to seek another job with more security. The Panthers may allow him out of his deal if another team compensated them with draft picks.

While he's been criticized for his conservative style, Fox has an impressive track record.

He inherited a 1-15 team from George Seifert after the 2001 season and had the Panthers in the Super Bowl two years later, where they lost 32-29 to New England. The Panthers lost to Seattle in the NFC championship game at the end of the 2005 season, and they had Super Bowl aspirations last year after going 12-4.

But Carolina folded in the playoffs in a 33-13 home loss to Arizona when Jake Delhomme committed six turnovers. The Panthers then gave Delhomme a lucrative contract extension, only to watch him commit five more turnovers in a Week 1 loss to Philadelphia on the way to starting 0-3.

As injuries piled up, Delhomme threw 18 interceptions in 11 games. Fox stuck with him until he was sidelined with a broken finger in a Nov. 29 loss to the New York Jets.

Matt Moore took over and has led Carolina to a 3-1 record. He has six touchdown passes and no interceptions while outplaying Brett Favre and Eli Manning the past two weeks.

The late-season success is nothing new for Fox. The Panthers are 24-13 in December and January regular-season games in his tenure and 5-3 in the playoffs.

"Maybe they do it in midseason next year. Who knows?" Lewis said of a contract extension for Fox. "I know one thing, he's not going to have a problem finding a job. He's done a great job. He's one of the reasons I came here."