ATLANTA - John Fox had been preparing for the moment for a long time, yet still it somehow seemed sudden.
A late touchdown for the Carolina Panthers, then a timeout by the Atlanta Falcons, extended the inevitable.
Then, in the flash of an eye, it was done.
"It's been a heck of a run," Fox said, moments after his nine seasons as Panthers head coach came to an end with a 31-10 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. "It's been a great run, a lot of great memories. I know it didn't finish like anybody wanted, but if you had told me in 2002 that it would be a nine-year run, I would have taken it and run."
Fox tried to run off the field following the game, but he didn't get very far. Multiple Falcons coaches tracked him down, wishing him the best going forward.
Once in the locker room, Fox positioned himself just inside the entrance and greeted each of his players with handshakes or hugs - mostly hugs - before his final, tearful postgame speech with the Panthers.
"I think those guys understand how I feel about them, win or lose," Fox said. "I expressed that to them even before the game. Sometimes the journey is more important than your destiny. Our destiny was not great – 2-14 – but I still appreciated and respect their efforts."
The Panthers fought to the final gun, just as they had all season, but the outcome was all too familiar. Atlanta (13-3), aiming to wrap up the NFC South championship and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, dominated the opening quarter and never looked back.
The Falcons found the end zone on two of their first three possessions, while the Panthers netted 1 yard over their first three possessions as Atlanta built a 14-0 advantage that slowly grew to 31-3 before the Panthers scored a last-minute touchdown.
"It was a tough day," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Everybody was pretty excited before the game, wanting to do well for Foxy and send him out on a high note. But Atlanta clearly is just the better team, and we weren't able to get a lot going.
"It reminded me of a lot of games this season."
The loss capped a forgettable season in a memorable stay in Charlotte for Fox, who took over a team coming off a 1-15 year and took it to the Super Bowl in his second season.
This season, however, Fox suffered through his first double-digit loss season in 22 seasons of coaching in the NFL.
When all was said and done, Fox ended up with a 78-74 record - including 5-3 in the postseason - a middle-of-the-road mark achieved through countless ups and downs.
Fox and the Panthers hoped for a better end Sunday, but it wasn't a bitter end, either.
"This book is closed, man," Fox said. "It's a new chapter."
That goes for Fox, and it goes for the Panthers.