|In hunt for coach, Panthers may snag Fox
By Len Pasquarelli
Barring an upset, one in which Tony Dungy decides that he would rather have Chris Weinke than Peyton Manning playing quarterback for him, wager a bob or two that the next head coach of the Carolina Panthers will be current New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox.
By all accounts, the 13-year NFL veteran had an excellent interview with Panthers officials this week, and made a very favorable impression. Carolina also interviewed New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell this week. And management will huddle with Dungy, probably over the weekend, perhaps at the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala.
Cottrell is making the rounds, being interviewed by both the Colts and likely the San Diego Chargers as well, but is a longshot in all cases. Nick Saban of LSU, who probably could have had the job if he wanted it, has backed way off because the Panthers are not willing to cede much control to their new head coach. Carolina provided the deposed George Seifert near-absolute clout and the experiment failed.
Marty Schottenheimer is a non-factor because the team isn't going to hire a man who was fired so that the Washington Redskins could hire Steve Spurrier, the fan favorite in Charlotte and the Carolinas in general. Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis could land an interview if the Ravens lose at Pittsburgh this weekend, but he would have to be very impressive to maneuver ahead of Fox on the Carolina wish list.
Fox has several things going for him, not the least of which is his friendship with Carolina director of football operations Marty Hurney, who seems to be consolidating his front office sway. And he is tight with current Panthers special teams coach Scott O'Brien, who Carolina ownership wants badly to retain.
In fact, Fox has begun making informal contact with some assistant coaches he would consider for jobs, at least mentally assembling his staff.
So how would the Panthers, who backed off local favorite Steve Spurrier once they found out his exorbitant asking price, sell Fox to a fan base becoming increasingly disinterested in the product? For openers, they would allow the enthusiastic Fox to sell himself, hoping fans would cotton to his natural exuberance. But the team would also have to admit, which it is willing to do, that it's in the throes now of a massive rebuilding effort. Out of the "name brand" coaching business, the Panthers would have to convince fans that Fox wasn't just another retread, that he will be around for four or five years to see the rebuilding culminated, that he has fresh ideas.
The bottom line is that Fox appears a good fit for the Panthers, who want to consolidate power in the front office, with Hurney perhaps getting a bump in title and personnel chief Jack Bushofsky keeping his job.
Around the league
Johnson could be out in Buffalo: The end of Rob Johnson's brief and ill-fated career with the Buffalo Bills appears imminent now. Bills general manager Tom Donahoe told ESPN.com that last week's conversation with David Dunn, agent for the seven-year veteran quarterback, "went OK" but that his sense still remains that Johnson would prefer to play elsewhere in 2002. Donahoe reiterated that Buffalo will not offer Johnson a long-term contract extension and still prefers a deal that allows the team one more season to evaluate him. The indications are that Johnson won't accommodate the club with that kind of contract. The Bills might expose Johnson, whose salary cap value for 2002 is $11.2 million, in the expansion draft and cross their fingers that the Houston Texans bite on him. Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer tutored Johnson while both were in Jacksonville, and could be tempted to try to salvage his career. Said one league source: "Nobody knows what the guy can do but, if he's going to do anything, it's got to be with a change of scenery. His window of opportunity has run out in Buffalo. He's been beaten up physically and mentally there, and it's probably mutually beneficial for him to get out, and for the Bills to move on." All teams must submit their list of the five players they are exposing in the expansion draft by next Tuesday.
Coordinator questions: Despite coaching a unit that surrendered the fourth fewest points in the league but allowed late scores in six of 10 defeats this season, Gary Moeller was forced out as the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The move leaves Jags coach Tom Coughlin without a coordinator on either side of the ball, since offensive coordinator Bob Petrino last week resigned to take the same position at Auburn University. Look for Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, a longtime admirer of Moeller, to try to figure a way to get him onto his staff. The problem is, the Bengals have a full house right now, including defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. So the team and Brown will have to essentially create a position for Moeller, whose soft zone coverages came under attack from Jacksonville secondary members this season. Duffner, by the way, could be a Bengals head coach candidate somewhere down the road. Dick LeBeau isn't going to stick around forever and Cincinnati ownership feels Duffner has done a commendable job with the defense, nudging it to a top 10 ranking this season.
Old line a concern: Few would deny the San Francisco 49ers are about a year ahead of schedule in the wholesale rebuilding project undertaken two seasons ago, and that the franchise should contend for a Super Bowl berth within the next couple seasons. But there is one area of the mostly-young team that is a concern to coaches and club officials and that is the offensive line. The unit is a key for the kind of power-based running game into which the Steve Mariucci-designed offense has evolved. That divergence from the pure West Coast style might not sit well with consultant Bill Walsh at times, but it has proven effective. And it needs an effective line to operate well. But take away Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry, who is a pending unrestricted free agent, and the four other starters will average 32 years of age and nearly 10 seasons of experience by the start of the 2002 campaign. Left guard Ray Brown, who had a terrific 2001 season and was named to his first Pro Bowl after 16 years in the league, is 39. There isn't much depth and the 49ers have never demonstrated a propensity for selecting offensive linemen high in the draft. In the past 12 years, San Francisco has drafted only two offensive linemen, Newberry (1988) and Brian Bollinger (1992), in the first three rounds of the draft. The last time the 49ers used as first-round selection on an offensive lineman was in 1987, when they chose tackle Harris Barton, and before that it was "Bubba" Paris in 1982. Walsh and Terry Donahue have done a superb job refurbishing the defense in the past two drafts. Time for them to get some people now on the offensive front.
Spy game: Look for the Chicago Bears defense to use two "spies," middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and strong safety Tony Parrish against Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb on Saturday. The Bears also have been effective with a soft pass rush, or "mush rush," against quarterbacks who are known for their scrambling and they will use that again this week. Chicago had 60 rushes by quarterbacks against it this year and permitted only six runs of 10 yards or more. The longest run against the Bears by a quarterback was for 18 yards.
R.W. McMoney: Here's a breakdown on the five-year contract extension Chicago cornerback R.W. McQuarters signed last week: He received a signing bonus of $5.5 million and will collect a $1 million roster bonus and $400,000 workout bonus before camp begins. The base salaries are $1.25 million (for 2002), $2.25 million (2003), $2.75 million (2004), $3.05 million (2005) and $3.45 million (2006). There are additional offseason workout bonuses of $400,000 each for 2003-2005.
Punts: Redskins owner Dan Snyder has suggested the team take another look at quarterback Jeff George, released by Marty Schottenheimer after two games this year. ... Indianapolis has offered pending unrestricted free agent Jerome Pathon a one-year contract at about what he earned in 2001. But the fleet wide receiver, who was having a tremendous season until sustaining a foot injury, is going to take his chances on the open market. Pathon had foot surgery but should be close to 100 percent physically in two months. ... Miami is prepared to make a strong run at keeping quarterback Jay Fiedler, even though there is some reluctance over his asking price of $5 million per year. .... Detroit officials are leaning toward exposing quarterback Charlie Batch in the expansion draft.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.