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Carolina's Fox Heads Back to New York

January 08, 2006|From the Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Carolina Panthers were narrowing their 2002 search for a new head coach, owner Jerry Richardson relied heavily on a recommendation he received from the late Wellington Mara.

Mara, owner of the New York Giants, pushed Richardson to take a long, hard look at John Fox, his defensive coordinator at the time. Fox had never been a head coach at any level, but Mara convinced Richardson to gamble on him.

"Well was absolutely the most enthusiastic supporter for John," Richardson said the day he hired Fox. "In doing our research, the thing that kept coming back from everyone was John's energy level and enthusiasm. Well felt very strong about that, too."

Fox turned out to be the right choice for the Panthers, who made the playoffs this season for the second time in Fox's four years. He'll lead them into the Meadowlands to face his former team today, when Carolina (11-5) plays the Giants (11-5) in the first round.

"It's like playing your brother in racquetball," Fox said earlier this week.

Fox still has close to ties to many people in the Giants' organization, where he built long-lasting relationships while serving as defensive coordinator from 1997 to 2001. He rebuilt his reputation there after it had slipped a bit when he quit his job as Oakland's defensive coordinator during the 1996 training camp.

He was hired in New York the next season and spent five years building a defense that led the Giants into the Super Bowl. His 1997 squad ranked first in the NFL and set a team record with 44 takeaways, and helped win the 2001 NFC championship game by shutting out Minnesota's prolific offense.

Asked what made Fox special, Giant defensive end Michael Strahan cited a long list of attributes.

"His attitude. The way he carried himself. The way he got the most out of the players and some guys who weren't as physically tough as others, but just the way that he got everything out of the players that he could possibly get," Strahan said. "And the way the players responded and how much the players enjoyed doing that for him.

"I think that is what made me know 'Hey, this guy is head coaching material.' He makes the players love to play. He makes the players want to go out there and compete and give everything and beat themselves up for him and go to the wall for him."

Strahan is one of the many people back in New York with whom Fox is close. They even talked on the phone right before their regular-season finales. Carolina had to win in Atlanta to make the playoffs, and the Giants had to beat Oakland to win the NFC East.

"There are players there that I've been in the trenches with in the past and guys that are having big seasons for them and have had big seasons since my tenure there," Fox said. "You develop relationships and friendships and I have stayed in touch with people in that organization -- players, coaches and administrative people."

In many respects, Fox took much of what he learned in New York and applied it in Carolina. Both teams have many similarities and are built around the running game and stout defensive lines.

Give the Giants the edge in the running game, with Tiki Barber in the midst of the best season of his career. He ran for a franchise-record 1,860 yards this season, and led the league with 2,390 total yards -- the second most in NFL history behind Marshall Faulk's 2,429 for the St. Louis Rams in 1999.

Carolina, meanwhile, has struggled on the ground. Stephen Davis never fully recovered from last season's major knee surgery and is now on the injured list. DeShaun Foster, his understudy, is capable of being a featured back but has run for 100 yards or more only twice this season -- and both times were against the Falcons.

But the game could end up a battle of defenses anyway. Barber might find running room limited against Carolina, which boasts the third best defense.

And the Panthers' ends will undoubtedly be trying to prove something in light of New York's Osi Umenyiora calling Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker the "the second-best defensive end tandem in the league."

Umenyiora believes he and Strahan are the tops, and statistically they are better than Carolina's ends. They have 26 sacks this season.

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