There's a poorly kept secret that has been made clear over the past six months — that Panthers head coach John Fox is in his final 14 games with the team.
Fox is one of the longer-tenured coaches in the league and in the past few seasons built a supposedly gorgeous house on Lake Norman near Charlotte. Yet that house could be on the market come March.
How is this so certain? If it wasn't clear before, it became pretty obvious over the past few days.
First, there was a subtle sign of change in Sunday's loss to the Panthers. With the Panthers facing a 4th-and-4 at the Buccaneers' 37-yard line, Fox went for it. In today's NFL, that hardly qualifies as a news flash. After all, it might have been a shade too long for a John Kasay field goal (a 54-yard attempt) and too close for a punt.
But Fox, remember, is than man who coined a phrase that for years has sent shivers up the spines of Panthers fans: He has said, more than once, that a punt is not a bad play. Fox plays field position — always has. He plays the odds, knowing that with a sound defense and a run game, most of the time that safe call will work out in the end.
This time, Fox went for it and the move paid off: QB Matt Moore hit Steve Smith for a 37-yard touchdown. It's not clear which was more stunning: the fact that Fox went for it or that Moore made a great throw and read on the play.
But the more damning evidence of Fox's exodus came the following day. Having seen far too few quality throws like that one in Moore's two starts, Fox made a quarterback switch, giving the ball to rookie Jimmy Clausen just a few days after his 23rd birthday.
Let us count the ways why this is shocking.
One, Fox made the move on a Monday, giving the Bengals a full week to prepare for the change. Typically, Fox's Monday press conferences are about as revealing as the final half hour of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." Fox keeps everyone in the dark with his thinking until he has to say something. This time, he came out and said it: Clausen's our quarterback, be damned.
Two, Fox has a notoriously slow hook with quarterbacks as last season showed with Jake Delhomme. Now, those circumstances are different because of the loyalty Fox had for his longtime QB. And perhaps maybe that said more about Moore's prospects in Fox's mind at the time than we realized then. But Fox made Moore the starter this offseason and appeared to be fully in his corner until recently.
Three, Fox turned to a rookie at quarterback, and not because he was forced to. The last time he turned to a rookie QB, it was Moore in 2007, but that was only after Delhomme was injured and out for the season and after the Panthers had fallen behind in the playoff race.
The way Fox sees it, he has nothing to lose by turning to Clausen. If he goes 6-10 this season, he can blame it on having a rookie under center. And if he wins eight or nine games, he's viewed as a brilliant coach — and he might even make himself a few more bucks in the process.
My colleague at the Charlotte Observer, the esteemed Scott Fowler, wrote Monday that he thinks Fox's newfound bravado is a good thing. And maybe he's right for the short term.
But it's becoming clear that Fox is coaching unencumbered, with the idea that he will try his hand with another team. The Browns were interested in him this year, and the Giants have him on any short list that might come about if Tom Coughlin is let go. Other teams no doubt would be interested too, with his strong record in Carolina.
Be careful what you wish for, Panthers fans. Fox's new style might provide some kind of spark in the short term. But the team is bracing itself to lose a pretty darned good coach this offseason. The signs are all there. Whether they pay off or not — in the short or long term — remains to be seen.