CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two games into his ninth season as coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox clearly is at a crossroads. Heck, he might even be past it.
It’s that bad, really. The point of no return, if one actually still existed, may have come Sunday. Fox doesn’t have a contract beyond this season, he doesn’t have a win yet this season and he sure as heck doesn’t have a quarterback.
If you looked around Bank of America Stadium at the end of Carolina’s 20-7 loss to Tampa Bay, it looked a lot like it did -- almost empty and virtually silent -- on the last day of the 2001 season when the Panthers finished 1-15.
A day later, owner Jerry Richardson walked into a news conference to announce George Seifert had been fired and talked about how the life had been drained from the franchise. A few weeks later, Richardson hired Fox, who brought life to the Panthers and kept them competitive for quite some time.
Now, it’s almost back to Seifert territory.
Fox has no choice now. He needs to start Jimmy Clausen at quarterback next week at Cincinnati. It’s really the only chance he has to save his job, and it would also be the only decision to make to give himself a better shot at other jobs. He needs to pull the plug now.
“It’s way too early,’’ Fox said moments after the game. “Right now, I can’t make that decision at this point. Matt [Moore] has not been benched by any stretch. We’ll go with whoever gives us the best chance to win next week and that will take some time [to decide].’’
It’s not way too early to make a decision that really shouldn’t take any time at all. The concept of giving Moore, a former undrafted free agent, a chance at the starting job seemed like a nice idea when he finished strong after replacing Jake Delhomme late last season.
But as nice as it is that Fox believes in loyalty and rewarding guys who have earned a chance, and as much as he despises the idea of playing rookie quarterbacks or even drafting them early, the rest of the world had to know this moment would come the instant the Panthers drafted Clausen in the second round in April.
In a best-case scenario, Fox thought Moore might be what Delhomme once was -- a capable quarterback who didn’t turn the ball over --- and he could squeeze a season or two out of a game manager while Clausen took notes.
Once upon a time, Fox might have been able to do that with a ball-control offense and a great defense surrounding an ordinary quarterback. But times have changed on so many levels in Carolina. Despite having Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and an offensive line that’s supposed to be great, the Panthers haven’t shown any evidence of a ball-control offense in the first two games. The Panthers are young all over, largely because that's what their owner wants, especially on defense. On that side of the ball, the fans who bought into an impressive preseason by the defense bought into a mirage.
As Fox likes to say, “It is what it is.’’ What the Panthers are is an extremely young team with a coach and an owner that obviously haven’t been on the same page for a while and a general manager (Marty Hurney) who seems to be caught somewhere in a very uncomfortable middle.
“I don’t think that’s the place of a player,’’ said wide receiver Steve Smith, when asked who he thought should start at quarterback next week. “That’s up to the coaches and management.’’
Smith’s right, and that should be a decision where everyone’s on the same page. It should be a no-brainer. It should be Clausen. Let’s face it, Moore threw three interceptions against the Giants in the opener. He threw only one against the Bucs, but he completed only six of 16 passes for 125 yards and was sacked four times.
The offense sputtered. Moore doesn’t deserve all the blame, but he’s the quarterback Fox chose, so he’s going to get it.
Has Moore lost the confidence of his teammates, if he ever had it?
“I didn’t really take a poll to find out,’’ Smith said.
There’s no need for a poll. Moore’s a nice guy and he has tried hard. There was a time when Fox could take a guy like Rodney Peete or some combination of Vinny Testaverde, David Carr and even a young Moore and scrape together a 7-9 or 8-8 season and that would be enough to save his job.
A record like that wouldn’t be good enough to get Fox a new contract now and besides, this team, as it stands right now, isn’t good enough to get to any record like that. Moore’s not going to save Carolina’s season or Fox’s job.
Well, it’s a long shot that he’ll come in and make everything right forever and ever. But he did move the team a bit after replacing Moore late in the game. With Moore, there’s no longer any hope of an upside. With Clausen, that idea still exists.
There are people in the building who are very high on Clausen and that group includes the owner and general manager. Fox has to join them for at least the next 14 games, even though it's likely Clausen will be with this franchise long after Fox.
Look, this probably was going to be Fox’s last season in Carolina no matter what. In his dream scenario, the Panthers would have gone 10-6 or 11-5 with Moore, gone to the playoffs and Richardson would come offering a new contract. In that same dream, Fox would have turned and said, “Thanks for everything, but I’m off to coach the Giants … or the Browns … or somebody else.’’
Take a shot on Clausen and maybe the Panthers pull of some sort of miracle in the middle of their youth movement. It would put everyone back on the same page.
That’s not a real likely ending now. But Fox no longer is coaching for his future with the Panthers. He’s coaching for his coaching future.
Forget Richardson for just a minute and think about other owners. Fox has a good reputation around the league and a decent resume. The knocks on him are that he hasn’t been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and that he’s too stubborn or set in his ways.
Sticking with Moore would only enforce that stereotype and it might even force other owners to question Fox’s sanity. There’s really only one choice.
Start Clausen next week.