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Nothing works for Panthers' Fox in lame-duck year

When Carolina Panthers coach John Fox began the season in the last year of his contract and with the NFL's youngest roster, it seemed likely that one of two things would happen.

If Fox could harness the inexperience and have a successful season, he'd be one of the NFL's top coaching free agents in the offseason. If he failed, he'd likely be out the door anyway.

So far, nothing Fox tries is working. And on Monday he had trouble clearly explaining an 0-3 start that includes three touchdowns and 12 turnovers.

"We are what we are and that is what I'm trying to change so we're not that," Fox said.

It was the kind of familiar, odd non-answer that once produced smiles and chuckles when things were going well. But few things have for Fox since Carolina's embarrassing 33-13 meltdown against Arizona in the playoffs two years ago.

Despite going 12-4 and winning the NFC South in 2008, Fox was denied a contract extension after the home playoff debacle. Owner Jerry Richardson didn't budge last offseason, either, when the Panthers slid to 8-8. Richardson then directed his football staff to go younger and slash payroll.

Fox's woes started early.

After sticking with Jake Delhomme despite his 18 interceptions until he got hurt late last season, Fox had a quick hook for Matt Moore after just two games and six turnovers.

It brought the beginning of the Jimmy Clausen era Sunday against Cincinnati. The rookie from Notre Dame completed one pass and posted a 0.0 passer rating in the first half. He was better after halftime, but got little help in a 20-7 loss.

Fox on Monday said it was "more than likely" Clausen would start next week when things get even more difficult with a visit to Super Bowl champion New Orleans.

"Much like earlier things I've said I don't think our issues have all been the quarterback," Fox said.

The Panthers have numerous other problems, including no reliable receiver after four-time Pro Bowl pick Steve Smith. The Panthers activated only two other receivers on Sunday, both rookies.

Facing constant double teams, a visibly frustrated Smith didn't catch a pass until the fourth quarter Sunday and was seen barking at Clausen after the game.

The running game isn't helping, either. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who each rushed for more than 1,100 yards last season, have been held in check all three games. Teams have been loading up the line of scrimmage with eight defenders to stop the run and double-teaming Smith. That's essentially shut down the offense.

"You've got to make plays down the field throwing the ball," Clausen said Monday when asked how you beat that defensive alignment.

Deep passes have often turned into interceptions in a dizzying number of turnovers that leaves Carolina last in the NFL in scoring at less than 11 points a game.

"The variety last week was more sack-fumbles," Fox said. "This week they were just fumbles, whether it be in the run game or the center-quarterback exchange. But either way they're turnovers that give the short field for the opponent."

While the defense has been adequate despite those circumstances, it's not pressuring the quarterback after five-time Pro Bowl pick Julius Peppers was allowed to leave in free agency. Carolina has two sacks.

Fox was still trying on Monday. He brought out one of his trusty cliches in a team meeting, which was repeated by linebacker Dan Connor.

"You've got to know when to point a finger," Connor said. "When you're losing you've got to point it at yourself. When you're winning you point it at other people and you give them praise."

With little job security and a sinking season, there's potential for players to tune out Fox. But safety Charles Godfrey — one of the lone bright spots with an NFL-high three interceptions — insists Fox still has the attention of the locker room as time runs out for Carolina to salvage its season.

"One thing I like about Coach Fox is he's a man of his word," Godfrey said. "He believes in us. He's that way now we're in this slump. It hasn't changed."

(This version CORRECTS Corrects score to 33-13.)