Fox is right to play it cautious. In his first year with the Panthers and his first year as a head coach, he inherits a 1-15 team whose last regular season win was before 9/11. Last season the Panthers set an NFL record for most consecutive losses in a season with 15. Fox won't say how many years he thinks it will take for a turnaround, but he offers this: "You don't go one and 15 overnight and you don't go 15 and one overnight."
True, but some fans are already questioning whether Fox is the right guy for the job. They're so eager for a win they've lost their perspective. Fans are upset that in the team's first exhibition game, he pulled third-string quarterback Randy Fasani, who had led a dramatic Panthers comeback in the second half. But after the Washington Redskins tied the game at 30 with 1:55 remaining, Fox put in an undrafted rookie quarterback, Mike Watkins, who threw an interception that was returned 21 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Fox believes exhibition games are primarily about evaluating players and making tough roster choices. Rightly so. Exhibitions are a diagnostic tool; they don't count. "We were 0 and four in the preseason that Super Bowl season in New York," he likes to remind people. Fox, 49, was the defensive coordinator for the Giants from 1997 through 2001, his last job before joining the Panthers.
But short of a Miracle On Cedar Street, the Super Bowl and anything close is going to be a TV event for the Panthers this season. Fox understands the fan frustration.
"I don't have all the scars from last season; I didn't have to live through last year," he says. "I want to win any ball game, but the number one thing in preseason is for us to pick the best 53 players for the team. If we win in the regular season, they'll forget about this (exhibition losses)."
"I understand your pain" is good for Fox to expouse, but it doesn't mean he'll get a reprieve. Fans in Charlotte are as impatient and fickle as a hungry housecat. Even though the Panthers' organization has made it clear that its youth movement won't mean quick success, fans are going to conveniently forget. After so many tough, close losses, only a few wins will spur fans to say, "How about those Panthers!" as they grab their designer latte or greet friends at the gym.
Fox is somewhat prepared. Before coming to Charlotte last winter, he worked in the fan and media fishbowl of the universe, also known as New York City. "I've been to the barbecue before" is how Fox terms it. But he also knows he's never been the head coach when the pig was slowly roasted, then picked. He says he's got thick skin.
"I've got callouses," he says. "We have a plan. As long as (general manager) Marty Hurney and Mr. (Jerry) Richardson (owner) believe what we're doing is right, that's the most important thing.
"This will be the toughest year (in rebuilding the team)," he continues. "We had to cut guys from a one and 15 team to get under the salary cap. Our main lifeblood was the draft. We had high picks, but a year from now we'll have (even) more opportunity because there will be more cap room," allowing the team to sign free agents.
After learning about the Panthers during preseason, Fox says intensity level and skill work are the critical ingredients for this year's team to be successful. Too often, Panther players have lost their focus during games and/or not refined their skills to the highest level. Fox and his assistant coaches worked hard on both during preseason. "We made strides," he says, "but we still have work to do."
On this day, Fox is still bothered by what he saw in the team's third of four exhibition games. The Panthers' first team logged two good quarters before struggling in the third.
"That was the first time (in the exhibition season) that we hadn't maintained our intensity," he says. "In the first exhibition, the first team was 3-3. The second week, 13-6. The third week was, well, what it was."
Fox believes highly developed skills can supersede raw talent.
"It's not always the most talented team that plays the best," he says. "We have a good staff that teaches skills efficiently, and players have to pay the price and perfect them. Talentwise, we're not the best or the worst. We still have some holes, but with the cap situation, we can't go out and sign a $5 million a year free agent."
Opening at home against Baltimore, the Panthers will try to do something that is absolutely critical to whether they have a respectable season -- establish a running game. Their success with it has varied during exhibition games, and promising young running back DeShaun Foster is out until late September with a knee injury. Fox mentions the running game twice in his overview of important factors to winning the Baltimore game. Couple that with concerns about intensity and skill development, and Fox has his hands full. Callouses and all.