CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a light atmosphere full of smiles and laughs, the Panthers held their final full practice under John Fox on Friday, with the coach insisting he's been preparing for the end of his run in Carolina for about two years.
The last workout at the Panthers' practice complex was an odd scene, with the Meineke Bowl about to kick off just a few steps away on the team's home field. Fox gathered the players around him shortly before noon, with a burst of laughter heard from players as they broke toward the locker room.
The team will hold a walkthrough Saturday before closing the season a day later at Atlanta to end Fox's nine-year stay in Carolina.
"It's been a lot of great memories, a lot of fond memories, a lot of great relationships and something I'll cherish forever," Fox said. "Now (I'll) just embark on the next chapter."
Fox was first denied a contract extension after the 2008 season. He entered the last year of his deal this fall after the Panthers began a youth movement that's left them an NFL-worst 2-13.
"It's not new," Fox said of his impending departure. "It's something I've been preparing for actually for a couple of years."
Owner Jerry Richardson, who was attending the college bowl game yards away, hasn't publicly said he won't try to retain Fox. But a rift has developed between the two men since Carolina's 33-13 loss to Arizona in the team's last playoff game in January 2009.
Fox, who is making more than $6 million this season, is 78-73 in Carolina, which includes the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance in the 2003 season. But the Panthers have never had consecutive winning seasons under Fox and have clinched the league's worst record this season.
Still, many players have come out in support of Fox, known as tough but also a player's coach.
"I'll say this," Fox said before hustling inside, "these guys have stayed enthusiastic and have continued to work very hard all season."
The Panthers will be without cornerback Chris Gamble (ankle), fullback Tony Fiammetta (ankle) and defensive tackle Ed Johnson (knee) against the Falcons. Receiver Steve Smith (calf) is questionable after missing practice on Friday.