It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for the Panthers?

There is a silver lining after all for the soon-to-be-2-14-Panthers. The John Fox era will officially end after next Sunday’s game in Atlanta, and the Panthers will be given the gift of the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The last time the Panthers ended the season with the league’s worst record, they couldn’t even get the first pick in the draft because that went to the expansion Houston Texans. Thankfully the Texans botched that pick with David Carr and the Panthers “settled” for All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers.

The question this time around is whether the Panthers believe enough in Jimmy Clausen to eschew taking Stanford’s Andrew Luck to secure the quarterback position. Clausen fell to Carolina in the second round last year, but the team apparently was confident enough already in Matt Moore at that position and Clausen entered the season as the backup. The answer could rely on what coach inherits this mess. If Jim Harbaugh somehow ends up there, he could take Luck with whom he is obviously very familiar with. A defensive-minded coach may see it more pertitent to rebuild a defense that took a major hit when it lost Peppers last offseason.

And then there is the lingering labor issues that have focused heavily on whether or not to fix the absurd about of money highly-drafted rookies get. If that issue gets resolved, which it is expected to if the league and the union come to terms, GM Marty Hurney and his new head coach can breathe a lot easier not having the headache of worrying how much money they have to throw at an unproven player.

No one wants to endure a year like the Panthers have, and it’s a crying shame that John Fox’s tenure has to end this way. He is a lame-duck coach in the final year of his contract, nearly nine years after being hired to resurrect a 1-15 debacle. In just two seasons he had the Panthers in the Super Bowl, then back in the NFC Championship game two years later. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It just remains to be seen who provides that light.

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