Fox unaware owner sent apology letter to fans

As Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson ended his silence by apologizing for their ugly season, perhaps the best example of the disconnect with his coach came as John Fox was asked Wednesday about that letter sent to permanent seat license holders.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Fox said.

After being denied a contract extension the past two offseasons, Fox is in the last year of his deal and not expected to return in 2011. Richardson didn't directly address Fox's status in a letter sent out this week to PSL owners, who account for about 60,000 seats at Bank of America Stadium.

Many of those fans have stopped showing up as the Panthers (1-11) have sunk from NFC South champions in 2008 to the league's worst team amid a youth movement that dramatically slashed payroll.

"I know how difficult the season has been for you," Richardson wrote. "As the person ultimately responsible for putting a team on the field, I take full responsibility for our shortfalls. It is agonizing that we have not performed at the level we had planned for and expected."

Richardson defended the decision to shed numerous veterans in the offseason and replace them with inexperienced, cheaper players. The Panthers have lost six straight and are the league's lowest-scoring team.

"When the season began, we believed there was every opportunity for success," Richardson wrote. "Many of the players were returning from a team that had finished last year very strong. The motivation for this approach was both performance-based and a commitment to the future. Obviously we have fallen short, but our faith and commitment are still the same."

The terrible record and Fox's seemingly lame-duck status have made for an odd situation as the Panthers inch closer to acquiring the No. 1 pick in April's draft. But Fox has insisted his players are still playing hard.

"I don't think our team's results have been related to effort at all," Fox said.

The talent level appears to be far short of making this team competitive thanks to decisions not to go after a veteran quarterback, receiver, right guard and defensive tackles following the offseason purge that left Carolina with a league-low $77 million payroll. That's not counting about $30 million in so-called "dead money" for players no longer on the team that would have counted toward the salary cap this season, if there was one.

"Going forward, our plan of attack is to build through the draft while retaining our core players," Richardson wrote. "We have one of the youngest teams in the league, and a number of those younger players have shown genuine promise in this otherwise disappointing season. We won't give up on them. We also have a solid nucleus of veterans that we will seek to keep intact."

Richardson, who has not answered questions from reporters since January 2008, also addressed his role as head of the owners' negotiating committee for a new collective bargaining agreement. Many have questioned if Richardson's payroll-slashing was to cut costs in anticipation of a lockout.

"Let me be clear: A successful CBA is critical in sustaining the competitive balance of the NFL," Richardson wrote. "We're all in this together, and what is good for football is good for the continued success of each and every team.

"It's important for us to reach an agreement that benefits the fans, players, and teams. I want the players paid fairly, and I want us to play winning and exciting football."

There has been only one win and little excitement this season, but Richardson has been virtually assured of continued sellouts thanks to the large number of PSL owners who are required to buy season tickets.

"I understand that in a season like this, words can sound hollow, but, as PSL owners, you have my commitment to provide you a team that will make you proud," Richardson wrote.

Several players came to Richardson's defense on Wednesday, expressing confidence he'll successfully rebuild the team.

"I think it's just the character here that Mr. Richardson has and it just goes down from there," defensive end Everette Brown said. "Everybody he brings in, from the staff working in the building to the coaching staff to the players to the equipment room, nobody's letting down, nobody's quitting."

But Carolina is just a month from more uncertainty regarding its coach, who apparently wasn't consulted before Richardson sent his letter.

"I want all of you to know that we plan to look at every aspect of our organization," Richardson wrote. "What we do in the future will entirely be geared toward putting the best possible team on the field. I am committed to fielding a winning team, and I'm willing to invest the resources necessary to make it happen."

Notes: CB Chris Gamble (hamstring) remained sidelined from practice Wednesday. LB Jon Beason (knee), G Travelle Wharton (toe), DT Ed Johnson (knee) and LB Nic Harris (head) also sat out. ... RB Tyrell Sutton (ankle), S Marcus Hudson (ankle) and LB Jason Williams (knee) were limited. ... The Panthers were forced to practice on their artificial turf field because the grass fields were frozen amid a cold snap.