ATLANTA - For the majority of the Panthers players in uniform Sunday, John Fox is the only NFL head coach they've ever known.
That soon will change, even if their feelings for Fox do not.
"It was emotional afterwards to have to say goodbye to Foxy," left tackle Jordan Gross said following a 31-10 loss at Atlanta that ended Fox's nine-season tenure with Carolina. "There's no great way for this to end, but a win would have been better.
"Still, it's been a pleasure to be with Foxy for eight years. I'll never forget him."
Fox long ago connected with veterans like Gross, but he managed to do the same with a multitude of rookies this season as well, even though he knew this season likely would be his last.
With the youngest roster in the NFL on opening day, the Panthers struggled to find success all season, but Fox never lost the locker room and never lost his drive to see things through to the very end.
"In our current state, we struggled, but they never quit, never gave up," Fox said. "They were enthusiastic every day. I liked their attitudes and their efforts.
"We didn't have a bunch of drama, which can sometimes happen in this league. I'm proud of that, both of our staff and of our team."
It wasn't easy to hold things together at times, and it wasn't without its stresses. The Panthers, however, persevered if nothing else.
"He did everything he could to try to give us a chance to win, but this is a bottom-line business," said kicker John Kasay, a 20-year NFL veteran. "The bottom line is that if you're 14-2, you don't see a lot of changes. If you're 2-14, you see a lot of changes. That's just the way it is.
"This is a brutal business. It's physically demanding. It's emotionally demanding. And when you start straining relationships - which is what happens when you lose - it makes it really, really tough."
It's been a difficult season to be sure, but everyone around Fox fought for the same goal come Sundays – even on the final Sunday of a long season by any definition.
"We wanted to send Foxy out on a high note," said tight end Jeff King, who caught a touchdown pass in the game's final minute. "We wanted to end on a win, but we just weren't very consistent.
"He's a class act. It's tough to not give him that win."
As the final seconds ticked down on a season that couldn't end soon enough in some ways, it still seemed to end too soon for team leaders like linebacker Jon Beason.
"I didn't really know what to feel," Beason said. "Coach Fox was on my mind. Coach (Ron) Meeks, Coach (Richard) Smith, the whole staff, our trainers and the equipment staff.
"It's a tough situation, but Coach Fox has been a professional about it. He's a tough man and the ultimate players' coach. He knows when to be a coach, when to be a father, when to be a friend. I just can't say enough about him."
With game day success so hard to come by all season, some players admitted that it was a relief to have it come to an end.
But, while hoping for better times in the near future, none of the players said they were relieved to see their professional relationship with Fox come to an end.
"He's been here a long time, and he's made a lot of friends here," tight end Dante Rosario said. "He has great respect for us, and we have great respect for him.
"It's hard to realize that this is the end."