While there are a few NFL franchises whose fan bases are often felt sorry for on the national scene (i.e. the Cleveland Browns), most football fans believe that their team can turn things around in any given year. The Kansas City Chiefs went from 4-12 to winning the AFC West last season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went from 3-13 to 10-6. The Seattle Seahawks had a losing record yet stood on the edge of a Super Bowl berth. Such is life in the NFL where each new year features surprise playoff teams, and where anything is possible given the right off-season.
It's that last point that makes the 2011 NFL season different than the ones before it. For the Chiefs to turn it around, it took implementing the right scheme, bringing in the right new coaches and acquiring the talent for the overall plan. Given a couple of off-seasons to enact their franchise strategy, Scott Pioli and company proved their blueprint was a fine one. But what about an off-season where everything has been frozen? What happens then?
Even without free agency, several franchises brought in an incredible amount of new talent through April's NFL Draft. Several teams found (they hope) their future quarterback near the top of the draft. The Bengals are ready to move on with their new QB-WR combo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. The Falcons believe Julio Jones is the final piece to the championship puzzle. And Carolina has to hope Cam Newton can bring that same game-changing talent to the NFL that he displayed in Auburn's national championship run.
Yet that talent is stagnant. Rookies might be working out, but it's not with their coaching staff. There's no OTAs, no practices, no film sessions with new coaches and no NFL-level conditioning with the entire team. Maybe some playbooks were passed during the short window available (or even under the table), but acclimating to the speed of the NFL takes considerable time -- and that's for rookies who have been through an entire off-season with their new franchise.
This is also the worst off-season to have brought in a new head coach. Pat Shurmur faces a significant challenge in implementing his West Coast offense in Cleveland without an off-season to begin facilitating the changes. Jim Harbaugh came with a lot of hype, but the reality is that he's a brand new head coach with a brand new team incorporating a brand new plan. The timing couldn't be worse and 49ers fans need to have patience for what will likely be a long year -- new talent or not. The best new coaching scenarios are those where an assistant stepped in: Hue Jackson in Oakland, Jason Garrett in Dallas, Leslie Frazier in Minnesota.
Free agency will certainly happen and it will impact the on-field product. Rookies will also get their playing time and some will stand out. New coaching hires will certainly direct the results of their franchise's win columns. But the impact won't be nearly as measurable as previous seasons. The guess here, instead, is that those teams who were successful in 2010 will remain quite successful in 2011. If the window for competing at a high level was just opening for your franchise in 2009 and 2010 (a la the Packers), that team is going to be perfectly positioned for another deep run this season.
While the Chiefs have a much tougher schedule this season than last, the continuity provided by key offensive and defensive personnel can go a long way to maintaining the same level of success in 2011. It also makes the possible return of players like Mike Vrabel and Casey Wiegmann that much more important. Perhaps their successors are now in KC with the draft choices of Rodney Hudson and Justin Houston, but those guys haven't been given a smooth transition to accept such a mantle of leadership. Instead, if the veterans return even for the first several games, it would give the Chiefs a nice foundation that other teams wouldn't enjoy.
Every team hopes that this is their year -- the year that everything begins to click and surprises everyone in the process. And that's always possible for teams like the Bills, the Panthers and the Broncos. But the surest bet is that if a team had a high draft pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, they can expect to select around the same slot in 2012.