Hurney tempering Carolina optimism

My trips to training camps are over and all four NFC South Camp Confidential profiles have run on the blog. I’ve got lots of leftovers in my notebook and on my tape recorder and I’ll be using some of that for our season previews that run in a few weeks.

But I’m going to start rolling out some bits and pieces of what I’ve collected in the coming days. Let’s start with a conversation I had with Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney in Spartanburg, S.C.

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of optimism among Carolina fans. Nationally, a lot of media members are calling the Panthers a team on the rise and some even give them a chance to finish ahead of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.

So what does Hurney think about all this?

Well, let’s preface it with a little background. By nature, Hurney is one of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met. He has an inner confidence, but, on the outside, it always seems like Hurney is fearing the worst.

That brings to mind a story from the 2005 postseason. The Panthers were playing the Giants in the wild-card round. It was late in a game that the Panthers went on to win 23-0. Hurney was sitting directly behind the Carolina media in the Giants Stadium press box when a former co-worker I’ll call “Stan’’ did what a veteran reporter should do in that situation. He picked up the phone and started booking a hotel room in Chicago, where the Panthers would play the Bears the next week.

“Olson, hang up that phone now,’’ a red-faced Hurney started screaming.

A defiant -- perhaps “oblivious’’ is a better description -- sort, “Stan’’ simply continued booking his room. When finished, he turned to Hurney and said, “Relax, Marty, this one’s over." Hurney muttered something about it never being over until it’s over as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

So, as you might expect, the rest of the Carolinas are excited about this season, but Hurney is something closer to cautiously optimistic.

“If we stay healthy, we have a chance to compete,’’ Hurney said. “I think the excitement comes from the offensive production we showed last year. We showed we have the ability to score points and you have to score points to win in the league these days. We have that and we feel like our defense and special teams have improved.’’

The real reason for the excitement among fans might be the presence of quarterback Cam Newton, who probably will go down in history as the best player Hurney ever drafted. That move surprised many because Hurney previously was perceived as being too cautious to take a chance on a quarterback that had many critics as last year’s draft approached. But Hurney did extensive homework on Newton and concluded that there weren’t any problems. It sure looked like Hurney was right as Newton went out and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

“His competitiveness brings an energy to the whole team,’’ Hurney said. “When that dynamic player plays the quarterback position, that’s going to impact your team more than anywhere else because that’s the guy that has the ball in his hands every play. That confidence has a domino effect through the entire football team.’’

So Hurney is as optimistic as he can be about the offense. Although he made some personnel moves and the Panthers got some injured players back, Hurney’s not ready to say the defense has arrived.

As we wrapped up the interview, I thought about having some fun with Hurney. I thought about pulling out my cell phone and pretending to book a hotel room in New Orleans (site of this season’s Super Bowl) for late January or early February. But I decided against it, mainly because equipment manager Jackie Miles wasn't nearby to give me a set of ear plugs for me to drown out the aftermath.

“We made a step offensively last year,’’ Hurney said. “Now we have to deal with increased expectations and it’s an important year for us.’’

That’s as close to optimism as you’re going to get from Hurney.