Panthers' Fox appears safe - with a catch

The Carolina Panthers will not fire coach John Fox, but they also are not giving him an extension, forcing him to return next season in the final year of his contract if he chooses to remain with the team, according to sources.

Fox is to earn about $6 million in 2010, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL. However, he would also be in a "lame-duck" situation that coaches generally try to avoid.

According to multiple sources, the Panthers have decided not to make any changes or firings on their coaching staff or upper management. Fox, his assistants and general manager Marty Hurney all will be invited back for another season, the sources said.

The club's decisions are said to be influenced by financial considerations related to the uncertainty of whether NFL owners will be able to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the players' union and avoid a lockout of players by owners in 2011.

Thus, by not extending Fox's contract - an opposite approach from what other teams such as Minnesota and Philadelphia have done recently with their coaches - the Panthers avoid potentially paying a coach big money for a season when there might not be any football.

Firing Fox would have been costly, making the Panthers liable for his salary, minus whatever he made if he joined another team, plus they would have to hire a replacement.

There is still a scenario in which Fox will not be back in 2010 - if another team whose head coaching job becomes vacant takes an interest in him and he considers the opportunity attractive competitively with a chance for more long-term security.

First, any other team would have to determine whether Fox could get out of the final year of his contract with the Panthers and, if so, whether that would require them giving Carolina compensation.

Neither Fox nor owner Jerry Richardson could be reached for comment after Fox's early afternoon news conference, where he was not asked about his future.

Fox's coaching ability is widely respected throughout the NFL. He is by far the winningest coach in franchise history, with a 70-57 regular-season record (.551 winning percentage) the past eight seasons. He has led Carolina to three playoff appearances, including a trip to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season.

The Panthers' record under Fox is tied for ninth best in the 32-team NFL since 2002, when he took over a team that went 1-15 and led it to a 7-9 record.

However, Fox has yet to put together back-to-back winning seasons.

The Panthers finish their season at home Sunday against New Orleans (13-2).

Jackson might step up for Smith

Panthers receiver Steve Smith had successful surgery Monday to re-set his broken left forearm, according to Fox.

Fox said Smith likely would be put on injured reserve, which would open a spot on the active roster.

One possible addition could be former Appalachian State receiver Dexter Jackson, who is on the practice squad.

Smith sustained the injury after he caught the ball on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Matt Moore early in the third quarter. He crossed the goal line despite the fracture.

"He's a pretty tough individual," Fox said. "His finish on the touchdown was pretty unbelievable."