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Ol' ball coach is learning what ol' Fox already knew


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Ol' ball coach is learning what ol' Fox already knew

By Joe Menzer



CHARLOTTE - One year ago, the jury was out on whether the Carolina Panthers had made the right decision by hiring John Fox, a relatively unknown defensive coordinator from the New York Giants, as the franchise's third head coach.

That jury is still out, to some extent, but evidence is mounting that it may have been the best move the Panthers have ever made. The verdict from the jury could be in as soon as five months from now, when wins and losses from the 2003 season are added up and officially in the record books.

Last night's preseason game between the Panthers and the Washington Redskins was the first small step in seeing where those two NFL teams stand as the 2003 regular season approaches. The outcome meant absolutely nothing, but the parameters that framed the meeting were far more interesting than most meaningless preseason encounters.

There were those who believed passionately that the Panthers should have thrown all kinds of money at Steve Spurrier to make him the new head coach after George Seifert's firing after Carolina's 1-15 finish in 2001. Instead, Spurrier ended up as the head coach of the Redskins, who handed him a five-year, $25 million contract.

Fox signed a five-year deal with the Panthers worth about $1 million annually. That's a savings of roughly $20 million for the Panthers over the lives of the two contracts, assuming they would have had to pay Spurrier the same as the Redskins did and Fox doesn't go into renegotiation at some point.

The two men subsequently completed their first seasons in their new jobs with identical 7-9 records. But while the Panthers were ecstatic with Fox's first year, the Redskins were left wondering if they'd made a wise choice in luring Spurrier away from the University of Florida.

The Panthers made a six-game improvement in the win column and made it clear that they had a plan for the immediate future. The Redskins won one less game than the previous season under Coach Marty Schottenheimer, and their coach seemed surprised that his investment in waves of former Florida football players who already had failed elsewhere in the NFL didn't not lead him to glory.

Learning on the job

The first hint that Spurrier didn't have a clue about what he was doing in some major facets of his job was when he placed major importance on winning preseason games a year ago. The Redskins went 4-1 in the preseason, scored 167 points, and Spurrier made no apologies for playing starters deep into the fourth quarters of several of the games.

Then the real games began. The other teams played their starters all four quarters, and the Redskins immediately began struggling.

'I maybe got misled a little bit by preseason (a year ago),' Spurrier recently told reporters in Washington. 'The real season began, and we sort of got overwhelmed a little bit.'

But he stopped short of saying he had made a rookie coaching mistake.

'You try to play everybody,' he said. 'But anytime you keep score you're supposed to try to win. People accused us of trying to win a little bit more because we threw the ball a little bit more, but they do keep score.'

Yes, they do. But here's a news flash: it doesn't count in the standings.

As last year progressed, Spurrier continued to throw the ball a little bit more. But he couldn't figure out who should be throwing it.

First he tried Shane Matthews, a former Florida favorite who once played for the Panthers but couldn't come close to beating out Kerry Collins and Steve Beuerlein for the starting job. Then he tried Danny Wuerffel, another former Florida favorite who hasn't come close to matching his college success in the pros - primarily because he lacks arm strength.

Finally Spurrier settled on Patrick Ramsey, then a rookie, as his top quarterback. He says now that he should have done so earlier.

'We didn't realize that Patrick Ramsey was our best quarterback until late in the season,' he said.


Fox had to make a decision on the Panthers' starting quarterback, too. He took some heat for putting Rodney Peete in the driver's seat over Chris Weinke on the eve of the regular-season opener, but he stuck to his guns and remained loyal to Peete for the rest of the season.

He realized right away that Peete was his best quarterback and never wavered.

A big mistake

While Spurrier was trying to figure out who to play at quarterback, the ol' ball coach (as he likes to be called), never stopped throwing the ball around the yard.

The Redskins threw 559 passes and ran the ball only 440 times. The Panthers ran it 446 times and threw it 464.

Those numbers, at least in the Panthers' case, are likely to change dramatically this season. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning has talked about giving the ball to running back Stephen Davis 400 times.

Spurrier knows Davis. He had him on his team last year.

But Davis didn't fit the Spurrier mold - and now the Panthers have him.

Davis is the type of back who needs to handle the ball often. And even though he did carry it 207 times in 12 games for 820 yards and seven touchdowns for Spurrier's Redskins last season, he said he never really felt as if he was as much of a priority in the offense as he should have been. He caught only 12 passes for 23 yards, for instance.

When the season ended, so did Davis' seven-year tenure with the Redskins, who would have had to pay him a bundle to stick around if they hadn't released him.

The fact is, though, that the Redskins aren't better off on the field without him. Their depth chart at running back heading into last night read: Trung Canidate, Kenny Watson and Ladell Betts.

The only thing more amazing than the fact that Spurrier made the conscious decision to go with those guys over Davis is the fact that none of them played for him previously at the University of Florida.

But then, the ol' ball coach has learned something from his first season in the pros.

'A lot of Florida players I brought in (last year) didn't work out as well as I had hoped,' he said.

He brought in seven of them, and all but Wuerffel are gone now. It lends to the impression that Spurrier is starting over in his second season.

Meanwhile, Fox has a dominant defense in place and, thanks in part to Spurrier's NFL ignorance, a stud running back around which he is building a ball-control offense. It's a good fit and should be a winning formula.

In Washington, enigmatic owner Daniel Snyder must be wondering if he has either in the ol' $25 million ball coach.

• Joe Menzer can be reached at jmenzer@wsjournal.com

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Well I guess we have indentified the WP of their Area... but it seems to have a hint of the times in the bashing sense. I really don't understand why anyone would write this article?

Enough people must still be wanting the Fun-and-Gun in that area that this writer felt the need to go off.

How many coaches can be judged by their first season? The illustrious Bill Parcell? The record wasn't 7-9 after the first year. Even Joe Gibbs, wasn't able to come in, put in a new offense/defense (albeit SS had little to do with it) and almost break the 500 mark. If parcells get 7 wins this season people are gonna hail him as the greatest coach. But ol'ball coach just get lambasted for doing the same....

You know what it is? They are just trying to convince themselves they made the right decision, and in the back of their mind they know SS has an offense if operated correctly could be like the 99-00 rams.


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