Am I the only one who finds himself somewhat stunned that we've already reached the halfway point of the 2011 NFL season and all the uncertainty, rancor and despair that came with the most tumultuous and unproductive offseason in NFL history is already little more than a fading memory to so many? And what of all the things we thought were certain as a result of players and coaches having basically no offseason practices, skull sessions and workout programs?
It's clearly far too early to attempt to weigh the impact of the new CBA on either side and have any idea at all whether it was all worth it or not. But what about the one premise that seemed to be universally agreed on — the rookie head coaches in San Francisco, Carolina, Cleveland, Tennessee and Oakland would all be at a tremendous disadvantage because their learning curves and teaching time had been so severely diminished and their clubs would never be ready? It sure looks like that idea turned out to be a crock.
If the NFL Coach of the Year balloting were held tomorrow, Jim Harbaugh would almost have to be a unanimous choice. Beyond the addition of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Aldon Smith, Harbaugh has almost the exact same bunch that was one of the bigger disappointments in the NFL in 2010 now on the verge of clinching a division title by Thanksgiving and being in control of a first-round bye in the playoffs. He has made a hero out of Alex Smith, who almost nobody in San Francisco believed would even be back with the Niners this season, and he's done it all by just dumbing it down, teaching them less about systems and X's and O's and a lot more about trying to be the nastiest guys on the block.
I have to confess this, and I truly don't mean it in any kind of negative way, but I'm still not positive what gives Pat Shurmur the stuff to be a head coach in the NFL, but the Browns are 3-4 and still alive in the AFC North scrum. Sure, a lot of it is a product of their schedule to date, but all you can do is beat the guys they put in front of you, and Shurmur is barely winning games that the Browns have been losing for years. How competitive will the Brownies be when they actually start to succeed in Shurmur's West Coast offense?
Ron Rivera's Panthers have matched their 2010 win total prior to the halfway point of the season, and you could argue that they should be 5-3 rather than 2-6! Sure, several of those losses are the product of Cam Newton's mistakes, but show me an expert, insider or novice anywhere who predicted Rivera would get the kind of production he has out of Newton this quickly, with hardly any offseason chance to work with him. Nobody saw this coming, and you have to start with Rivera if you're handing out brownie points.
Mike Munchak's Titans have played almost the whole season so far with their only two legitimate weapons MIA. Kenny Britt went to the I.R. early, and Chris Johnson has played more like Chris Farley than the second-best running back in football, but Munchak's guys are second in the AFC South, half a game out of the lead.
With the same story in Oakland, where Hue Jackson has the Raiders challenging for the division lead, there's really only one conclusion you can come to. Either these five rooks are the greatest infusion of new coaching talent at one time in the history of the NFL, or all those OTAs, "unsupervised" passing-game drills and marathon film sessions that have become the new NFL offseason are extremely overrated. No offense to the newbies, but I'm betting on the latter. To be sure, there is some evening out on the horizon, and the Niners will most likely be the only one of these teams in the playoffs. Or perhaps they'll take a step back, too, as other clubs get the hang of Harbaugh's magic.
Nonetheless, I do think it's clear that the game may not be as complicated as all of those multimillion-dollar coaches have spent the last 10, 20 years convincing us it is. Looks to me like good old blocking and tackling aren't that hard to teach, after all.