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NFL: Now what, Panthers?

Associacted Press

CHARLOTTE — Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning and two other assistants took the fall for the Panthers’ miserable season.

Now, coach John Fox will have to make perhaps the most difficult decisions of his five-year tenure. And it’s uncertain what direction Carolina is headed after the first major upheaval in Fox’s staff since he took over in 2002.

Henning, who was fired Monday along with offensive line coach Mike Maser and secondary coach Rod Perry, was bashed by fans for his conservative offense and his penchant for calling draw plays on third-and-long.

But Henning also gave coach Fox what he wanted: a ball-control, no frills offense that limited big mistakes.

Is Fox, famous for saying a punt isn’t a bad play, willing to abandon that philosophy?

Probably not if the Panthers draw from their current staff to replace Henning. General manager Marty Hurney has said the team will probably interview some of its current coaches for some of its vacancies, and quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy is a likely candidate. So is running backs coach Jim Skipper, who also has the title of assistant head coach and has run practices in Fox’s absence in the past.

If the Panthers decide to go outside the organization, Jim Fassel is a possibility. Fox worked as Fassel’s defensive coordinator for the New York Giants and Fassel has been out of work since being fired as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in October.

But some question why Henning should be blamed when the Panthers lost two starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries in Week 1 and another late in the season. In addition, an injury to Jake Delhomme’s thumb injury forced the ineffective Chris Weinke to start three games at quarterback late in the season — two of them losses.

During his five-year tenure, Henning helped Carolina reach the Super Bowl and another NFC championship game while developing Steve Smith into one of the league’s top receivers.

“No job is safe in this league,” receiver Keyshawn Johnson said.

Johnson came to Carolina in part because he once played under Henning with the New York Jets. Johnson said this week he’s debating whether to return next season.

The Panthers also had the worst third-down conversion rate in the NFL and the home fans routinely booed Henning’s play calls, especially as Carolina struggled to get the ball to Smith.

Smith, who led the league in receiving in 2005, saw his numbers go down despite Johnson’s signing in the offseason.

It’s unclear if Henning’s firing signals that Fox is ready to abandon his defense-first philosophy and open up the offense in hopes of making big plays — but also possibly big mistakes.

No matter what direction Fox goes in, the firings have put him and everyone else in the organization on notice: Missing the playoffs when you start the season with Super Bowl hopes is unacceptable, injuries or not.

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