CHARLOTTE, N.C. — John Fox is a man of routine and favorite sayings. One is the phrase he's used for nine years after Carolina runs the final play of practice and he wants the players to gather around him.
"Everybody up!" Fox yelled in Wednesday's chill for one of the final times. Sunday's season finale against Atlanta will be his last game coaching the Panthers.
"This is not new news. It's a finishing and it's kind of been knowledgeable for a couple of years," Fox said after the workout, refusing to get sentimental. "We'll just leave it at that."
It's been a long, awkward, miserable year for the secretive Panthers. While owner Jerry Richardson hasn't publicly said he won't try to retain Fox — Richardson hasn't answered questions from reporters in almost three years — it's one of the worst kept secrets in the NFL.
Richardson declined to extend Fox's contract after Carolina's blowout loss to Arizona in playoffs following the 2008 season. It was the beginning of the end for the franchise's winningest coach, whose contract expires Feb. 1.
And while Fox inherited a 1-15 team in 2002 and had it in the Super Bowl two years later, his tenure will end with the worst season of his 21-year NFL coaching career. The Panthers (2-13) have already locked up the league's worst record and No. 1 pick in April's draft.
"I'm not really in a reflective mood at this stage," Fox said, "but I'll be able to walk out with my head high and be able to look in the mirror."
Fox's finale could get ugly.
The overmatched Panthers, who have the league's worst offense and managed 119 yards in a 27-3 loss to Pittsburgh last week, have the unenviable task of facing Atlanta on Sunday. The Falcons (12-3) are coming off a loss to New Orleans and need a win to clinch the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
In a typical Fox fashion, he seized on Minnesota's upset of Philadelphia Tuesday night as a motivational tool in a team meeting Wednesday morning.
"It's been difficult to come in and practice every week, but with coach Fox, he motivates you to come in and practice," cornerback Richard Marshall said. "He motivates you to come in and play hard, play full speed for him. That's something that you can respect."
Several players referred to Fox as tough, but also a player's coach. That bond was evident when Fox got emotional as players presented him with the game ball after beating Arizona in the final home game on Dec. 19.
"Beating the Cardinals at home was a huge game for us, his last home game," said left tackle Jordan Gross, Carolina's lone Pro Bowl selection. "This game is big. It means a lot to the Falcons and it means a lot to us.
"We haven't had a lot of games that had a lot of weight on them and this is one that does. So it'll be fun to go out there and give it our best and if we win send out Fox on a high note."
The 55-year-old Fox lost a heartbreaker to New England in the Super Bowl, reached another NFC championship game and had another playoff team. But Fox was never able to string together consecutive winning seasons and now has presided over a horrible final campaign in which he's had a clear rift with management.
The first signs came in April when Fox didn't appear with general manager Marty Hurney to speak to reporters after the draft. He later said safety Chris Harris was traded because the team had "a budget." As the season spiraled out of control, he referred questions to the "personnel department."
"When you're in this business and you have things go the way they have, of course there are going to be differences of opinion," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "Coach Fox is a guy that definitely wants to win football games and he's all about winning. As a player, you want a coach who's like that.
"Unfortunately for us it didn't happen this year. We didn't get a lot of wins and we're sitting with the No. 1 pick in the draft right now. So the personnel department, they have a lot of decisions they have to make. That's the nature of this business."
Fox is 78-73 in Carolina, counting the playoffs. But this year's debacle may affect his ability to get another head coaching job.
"There's a résumé in the NFL," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "Hopefully, we can even make his résumé look better."
Fox declined to talk about his future. He didn't even want to reflect on going through his final Wednesday practice, always the most intense of his regimented week.
"I have a lot of Wednesdays in 21 years," Fox said. "They all look kind of the same to me."
NOTES: Fox said C Ryan Kalil is a first alternate to the Pro Bowl, LB Jon Beason second alternate and S Charles Godfrey sixth alternate. ... RB Jonathan Stewart (foot), FB Tony Fiammetta (ankle) and DT Ed Johnson (knee) missed practice Wednesday. CB Chris Gamble (ankle) and DT Nick Hayden (head) were limited.