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Fox's formula clicking for Carolina

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

In the immediate moments after Sunday's victory against Chicago, the comparisons started for the Carolina Panthers. Maybe it was a television person or maybe it was a writer who asked the question first. Either way, a theme was born.

Is this the second coming of the Cardiac Cats? Are the Panthers about to repeat the 2003 season?

Stop it right there. Two games into a season, any comparison is premature. Besides, the comparisons to Carolina's lone Super Bowl team just aren't accurate.

The 2003 team was lucky at times. This year's team has a chance to be flat-out good all the time.

For the first time in a long time and maybe the first time ever, the Panthers are set up to play football exactly the way John Fox likes to coach. They're running the ball very well and they're playing very aggressive defense.

They've won two games by coming from behind, which was the signature of the 2003 team. But, with receiver Steve Smith returning from a two-game suspension, the comebacks may no longer be necessary.

That's because, after two very painful seasons, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney spent the offseason making sure the Panthers fit their mold and not the other way around. Smart move when you've got the shadow of Bill Cowher hanging over the Carolinas and every "hot seat'' list has your name on it.

So far, it's working perfectly. After coaching with smoke and mirrors the last few seasons, Fox has been able to get back to what he does best.

"I know that having your quarterback back helps,'' Fox said. "Until this season, we haven't had our quarterback in 14 of our last 20 games.''

Sure, the return of Jake Delhomme from elbow surgery is huge. The Panthers don't have to patch together Vinny Testaverde like they did last year, but the resurgence of this team goes beyond quarterback.

From the day Fox walked into George Seifert's mess in 2002, the coach said he wanted balance on offense and defense. But we've never truly seen what Fox was talking about.

Even in the Super Bowl season, the Panthers weren't able to play exactly to Fox's formula. They used a dominating defensive line to make up for an ordinary secondary and, on offense, pounded away with Stephen Davis behind a rapidly-aging line. The Panthers also caught lightning in a bottle and caught every break along the way.

Davis and the offensive line got old the next year and the Panthers haven't been the same on offense since. They did make it to the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season, but that was different. That season, the Panthers got a bunch of running backs hurt and Fox and former offensive coordinator Dan Henning had to change philosophy and let Smith and the passing game carry the offense.

That worked great for one season, but not the last two.

That's why Fox and Hurney went out and overhauled the offensive line and drafted running back Jonathan Stewart in the first round. That's why they signed receivers Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett.

With those moves and coordinator Jeff Davidson making some adjustments to maximize the talents of DeAngelo Williams and the tight ends, the Panthers are finding more balance on offense than they've ever had. Williams and Stewart are giving the Panthers a backfield combination that features speed and power. Muhammad, Hackett and the tight ends are giving the Panthers weapons in the passing game beyond Smith.

"A lot of teams want to play that way,'' Delhomme said. "That's a blueprint of how to win in the National Football League and I think we have tried to do that in the last few years, but I think we [now] have the personnel to do that.''

The Panthers also have Fox's kind of personnel on defense and it's different than the 2003 team. That team was built around the front seven. This team is built around the back seven with middle linebacker Jon Beason and a talented secondary leading the way. The defensive front may not have the names (Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins) that it once did, but Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu, Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson have been solid so far and the Panthers are waiting for the talented Julius Peppers to be spectacular.

That's all brought balance all around, which is precisely what Fox has wanted for a long time. He's always preached consistency, always told his players to "be the same guy" every week and, now, Fox just might have the tools in place to be the same coach every week and make his system work the exact way it's supposed to.

"You don't feel too good about yourself because this is a league where you can get humbled very quickly," Delhomme said. "You can be the talk of the town one week and fall on your face the next. That's just the way it is. So you want to be the same guy."