NFL head coaches are generally judged by many people on a lot of standards and methods. The media sometimes plays a prominent role in how a head coach is viewed by fans. But one thing is always clear, especially in the NFL, a coach’s job security is really based on the performance of his team on the field.
If a coach is winning, most of the time they are safe. An organization has its own expectations on how a team finishes, and whether or not a team has met its expectations. Fans generally decide their own opinion on where a team should finish themselves. This is where the stress level of being a head coach becomes dangerous, because they also have their opinion on how a team should perform every week.
The Carolina Panthers have had three head coaches throughout its 14 year history: Dom Capers, George Seifert, and John Fox. Capers was viewed widely as a playbook genius, especially on defense. Capers is one of the “nice guy” coaches who allowed his personality to spill over into many of his players.
Any organization would love to have Capers involved, but it was always a question mark whether Capers could consistently be the man in charge. During Carolina’s second season in 1996-97, Capers led Carolina to a 12-4 record, division title, 8-0 record at home, and the team's first ever playoff victory against Dallas.
Advancing to the NFC Championship game in their second season in existence, the Panthers and their fans felt as if they had the head coach they needed for many years. But as we all know from being sports fans, no matter how quickly you can hike to the top, it's always faster to the bottom when you’re falling down the mountain.
A 7-9 record in 1997 showed signs of the team unraveling under Capers. In most cases, a 7-9 record for an expansion team in its third year would be pretty good, but after the ’96 season's success, the expectations became enormous, and the pressure to continue to back that up mounted, as Capers never seemed to get it under control.
In 1998, the Carolina Panthers fell apart, finishing 4-12, and ultimately Capers’ reign at Carolina came to an abrupt end. Capers finished off his four-year career as head coach of Carolina with an overall record of 31-35, including one postseason visit.
George Seifert came into Carolina in 1999 with the highest winning percentage of all-time in the NFL as a head coach, mounting up an impressive 98-30 overall record during his eight year run as head coach in San Francisco, including winning two Super Bowls.
The message was clear from Panther nation: This team and its fans felt as if they belonged and deserved to be in the playoffs every season. Seifert was viewed by many as a mysterious man who hid his eyes behind his sunglasses even on rainy days. He allowed his assistants to be extremely involved in how the team was run, something a lot of head coaches in the league today don’t do.
During his first year as Carolina’s head coach, Carolina made a big push for the playoffs, just missing out on the last spot by a three-way tiebreaker, the Green Bay Packers got the last playoff spot in the NFC in 1999.
Although Carolina only improved by one win during Seifert’s first season with the Panthers (finishing 8-8), most of the Panthers fans felt as though they finished on a strong note by making a run for the playoffs. Fans became extremely optimistic entering the 2000 season.
In Seifert’s second season with Carolina, the Panthers shined some weeks, and disappointed in others. But they were for the most part competitive. They finished 2000 with a 7-9 record. Wholesale changes were made during the 2001 offseason to the makeup of the team, but Seifert remained in charge.
Carolina started a rookie at QB. The Heisman winner Chris Weinke was now the man under center.
Seifert is an alum and former assistant to the University of Utah, and those connections are what many believe brought a little known wide receiver out of Utah to Carolina via the third round of the NFL Draft. Steve Smith was Seifert’s new project, and probably the best thing Seifert ever did for the organization.
With all the hype behind the 2001 Panthers, the results were stunning to the entire NFL, as the Panthers fell to an overall record of 1-15. Carolina wasn’t even mediocre anymore, they were terrible. Seifert finished off a three year career as Carolina’s head coach with an overall record of 16-32 with the team, and zero postseason visits.
John Fox was hired as Carolina’s third head coach in 2002. Fox’s roots in football were all defense. Fox was a defensive back for San Diego St. University during his playing days. When his playing career ended, John Fox bounced around college football, mainly taking jobs as defensive back coach.
In 1986, Fox was given his first opportunity to be a defensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. Fox excelled as defensive coordinator, and in 1997 he found himself running an NFL defense as the coordinator of the New York Giants.
During his four-year career as coordinator in NY, Fox developed a reputation as one of the best defensive minded men in the sport. The Carolina head coaching vacancy was the perfect opportunity for Fox to start his head coaching career, and in 2002 he accepted the job as head coach of Carolina. His first order of business was to completely rebuild Carolina’s defense from top to bottom.
In place was some potential. MLB Dan Morgan and DT Kris Jenkins were entering their second season with the team and brought loads of potential. The Panthers held the No. 2 spot in the 2002 NFL Draft and used it to select DE Julius Peppers.
The 2002 Carolina Panthers became a defensive monster, finishing the 2002 season as the No. 2 overall best defense in the NFL. Carolina followed up a ridiculous 1-15 season with a 7-9 record and it all seemed to be falling back into place.
At the start of the 2003 season, many fans and insiders were unsure of what to expect.
For the most part, everyone knew that Carolina would have a great defense, but overall, no one really knew where this team was. Fox addressed the offense by bringing in running back Steven Davis from Washington, and starting wide receiver Steve Smith opposite of Muhsin Muhammad. The Panthers also used their early first round draft pick on Jordan Gross, a mauling OT from Utah.
In the first game of the 2003 season in Charlotte, the Panthers found themselves down 17-0 at halftime to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fox pulled the plug on QB Rodney Peete and gave journeyman Jake Delhomme a chance to bring the team back. Delhomme and the Panthers responded by recording an enormous comeback, which included a fourth down TD pass from Delhomme to Ricky Proehl with less than a minute left to win the game.
Carolina rode the momentum wave all the way to an NFC South Divisional Championship, and into the Super Bowl where they faced NFL juggernauts, the New England Patriots. The result was not as fun as the season for Fox and the Panthers, and Carolina left the Super Bowl with a last minute three point loss to N.E.
After the disappointing loss in the Super Bowl, Carolina nation felt good about how quickly the team rose up to the brink of the top again.
Coach Fox and the Panthers missed the postseason in 2004, finishing off 7-9, but returned again in ’05 and advanced to the NFC Championship game in Seattle.
The following two seasons the Panthers hung around the .500 mark, and it seemed the missing piece was the dominant running game the team had during the 2003 Super Bowl run. The Panthers parted ways with feature back DeShaun Foster, and decided to make third year RB DeAngelo Williams as the premier back.
They also used two first round draft picks on another RB in Jonathan Stewart out of Oregon, and OT Jeff Otah out of Pitt. It was an ingenious move by Fox, and the two running backs helped propel Carolina to a 12-4 season in 2008.
Coach John Fox has mounted a 68-52 record with the Panthers, including a 5-3 postseason record.
John Fox exemplifies everything great about the Carolina Panthers organization. He is consistent, handles himself as well as anyone in the league, and is one of the most respected head coaches in the NFL today.
Fox is also one of the many reasons the Carolina Panthers will enter the 2009 season with high expectations, and in my opinion, the team to beat in the NFC South.
It is comforting for Carolina Panther fans to know that they have a man of Fox’s caliber guiding this team.