In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, MICHAEL SILVER kicks off a discussion about the teams that are in the best position to handle the curveballs that will come with this surreal offseason.
Back in the summer of 2011, Jim Harbaugh was a rookie head coach wondering what in the world he'd gotten himself into, desperately searching for a salvageable solution.
Seven months after taking over a San Francisco 49ers team that had gone 6-10 the previous season, Harbaugh presided over a fiasco of a preseason debut against the New Orleans Saints. His team looked lost in the Superdome, particularly at the quarterback position, with starter Alex Smith completing just two passes for 10 yards and second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick not faring much better.
How bad was it? Three days after the game, the 49ers worked out Daunte Culpepper, who'd thrown his last NFL pass for the 2009 Detroit Lions -- and whose most recent employer had been the UFL's Sacramento Mountain Lions. The Niners ended up signing journeyman Josh McCown instead, but bringing in Culpepper told you everything you needed to know.
It looked like Harbaugh was headed for a rocky rookie season, and he had a hell of an excuse: A lockout had wiped out the entire 2011 offseason, depriving him and his assistants of the chance to implement and coach a new system.
Yet somehow, against all odds, Harbaugh found a way to overcome the inherent disadvantages. The 49ers, with Smith providing steady play at quarterback, rolled to a 9-1 start, losing only an overtime game in Week 2. After a 13-3 regular season, they reached the NFC Championship Game, suffering a heartbreaking defeat to the visiting New York Giants after a fumbled punt in overtime.
Harbaugh's Niners had come shockingly close to pulling off one of the most unlikely Super Bowl seasons in history, but they were an outlier. Most of the teams that thrived in the wake of the lost offseason were predictable ones. The eventual champion Giants were a veteran-fueled group with an accomplished head coach (Tom Coughlin) and an established quarterback (Eli Manning). Similarly, the New England Patriots, who lost narrowly to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, had Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and a ton of stability. The Baltimore Ravens (who reached the AFC Championship Game), the Green Bay Packers (who went a league-best 15-1 in the regular season), the Saints (13-3) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) all had carried plenty of continuity into the summer of 2011.
So here we are nine years later, in the midst of a global pandemic and the surreal offseason it has provoked, trying to figure out which teams are best positioned to navigate the unusual challenges and hit the ground running when football resumes.
Will we round up the usual suspects, or look for an outlier like Harbaugh's 2011 Niners?
This is the point at which I am thrilled to hand the ball to the esteemed trio of veteran journalists in my midst.
Judy Battista: All I need to know about which team is likely to thrive in this offseason came from the coach of said team himself. When Sean Payton told the Saints to blow off the virtual offseason program and just be sure to be in the best shape of their lives for whenever training camp opened, it emphasized the obvious: This is a team with almost no holes and with the benefit of extreme continuity, which has never been more important than it is right now.
I'd argue this is an even more challenging offseason to navigate than the one during the lockout. During the lockout offseason, players could at least get to gyms and work out with their trainers. They are, theoretically, not able to do that fully right now. That would seem to favor older, veteran players, who already know what they have to do in the offseason to have their bodies ready for camp, and it definitely favors teams that have not made significant changes to the roster or to the coaching staff.
On all counts, that is the Saints. Oh, and they were really good last year, anyway. It helps when your most important offseason move was getting Drew Brees back. And when your second biggest move was, arguably, to sign Jameis Winston as Brees' backup. It takes an extraordinary amount of trust in players for a coach to completely take his hands off the wheel for the offseason. If Payton has that kind of trust in the Saints, so do I.
Jeffri Chadiha: So I guess I'm the only one here who wants to go with the team that actually won the Super Bowl.
The Kansas City Chiefs have 19 of the starters from Super Bowl LIV under contract, and that number will increase to 20 if they're able to work out a long-term deal with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones (who was given the franchise tag). They kept their entire coaching staff intact. They still have the best player in the league, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and an offense that should be more explosive if running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City's first-round pick, is anything close to what he was at LSU.
I understand how hard it is for a Super Bowl winner to repeat -- or even return to that game -- the following year. I also ran into a few Chiefs players earlier this offseason, and they admitted to being thoroughly worn out from that championship run. However, I believe in not over-thinking things. The Ravens and Saints sound good on paper. But if you're asking me to put money on this -- and gamble on a team to not fall behind because of what's happening in the world today -- then that's easy. Give me the squad that actually finished last year on top.
Silver: OK, I'll stay on Jeff's Super Bowl LIV theme and bring this full circle: Unlike Harbaugh's team facing those challenging circumstances nine years ago, Kyle Shanahan's 49ers are perfectly positioned to emerge from this unusual offseason and make a championship run.
Like Jeff, I'm aware that it's hard to get back to the Ultimate Game -- and the collective fate of Super Bowl losers in the past quarter-century has been worse than that of those that hoisted the Lombardi. Yet, the Niners looked like an ascending team throughout the 2019 regular season and playoffs, and even after surrendering that fourth-quarter lead against the Chiefs, they walked off that field in South Florida with every reason to believe they can compete for a title in 2020.
Since then, they've traded a fantastic defensive tackle (DeForest Buckner, to the Colts) and said goodbye to a stalwart left tackle (Joe Staley, who retired) while securing their replacements last month. I expect trade acquisition Trent Williams, who played for Shanahan in Washington, to stabilize the left tackle position seamlessly. It will be tougher for first-round pick Javon Kinlaw to be Buckner's equal immediately -- if ever -- and the team's other selection in that round, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, may need some time to adjust to Shanahan's offense.
Here's the good news, however. The Niners, theoretically, could get an infusion of juice from several players who've been in the building (and gained familiarity with Shanahan's system) and are fighting their way back from injuries: running back Jerick McKinnon, a versatile 2018 free-agent signee who missed the previous two years with knee injuries; multi-threat receiver Jalen Hurd, a third-round pick in 2019 who sat out his entire rookie season with a back injury; and slot receiver Trent Taylor, whose 2019 campaign was derailed by a series of foot surgeries.
Taylor, in particular, could give the 49ers a different dimension: Several S.F. coaches believed he was headed for a Pro Bowl campaign at this time a year ago, and having former Patriots and Broncos star Wes Welker as his position coach and role model doesn't hurt.
On paper, I believe the 49ers could be even more potent in 2020 than they were a year ago.
Jim Trotter: The obvious answer is any successful team that returns most of its roster and all of its coaching staff, so clearly, the Chiefs and 49ers are at the top of the list after reaching last season's Super Bowl and retaining nearly all of their core players. But as Mike referenced above, history tells us that reigning Super Bowl participants are not good choices for return appearances. In fact, there has not been a repeat champion since the 2003-04 Patriots, and only one losing team since the 1993 Bills has gotten back to the title game the following year.
With that in mind, I believe the Baltimore Ravens have the best chance of overcoming this historic offseason. The roster is loaded, led by reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson; the coaching staff is outstanding; and the organization is hungry to wash its mouth of last season's one-and-done playoff appearance after a 14-2 season.
Not only that, Jackson has publicly stated that his singular focus this year is getting his first playoff win after losing each of the last two years. The young man's pride is as immense as his athletic ability, and I believe he will set the course for the rest of the team.
Battista: That seems to be the theme here: continuity, stability, familiarity. This is an especially tough year to have hired a new coach or changed offensive or defensive systems.
Here in New York, the Giants' Joe Judge hasn't complained, but imagine being a first-time head coach and not even being able to get in the same room with your players. As he has said, if working from the basement is the worst problem, we're fine. But he also noted that you can't have teammates showing up at training camp and introducing themselves to each other for the first time. Teams are missing the lunch-table conversations, he said. That is a much bigger deal for a team like the Giants, for one, than it is for some of the teams we've mentioned.
That's why I wonder how the darling of the offseason -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- will fare when the season starts. On paper, they've had a great offseason, of course. And it's important that Tom Brady is so ready to get going that he's walking into strangers' homes in search of his new offensive coordinator. But are the Bucs even going to get the full benefit of Brady's leadership and driver of culture this season? That's why I am siding with the intact teams.
Trotter: Some words stick with us more than others, and this situation has the legendary preaching of Herm Edwards ringing in my ears: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
Obviously, Coach Edwards was talking about human behavior, but I believe the words can apply to football culture, as well, which is why I think history will repeat itself as far as established teams having a distinct advantage if the offseason is erased in terms of physical contact and on-field activities.
An assistant coach on a new staff was lamenting to me over the weekend how detrimental the current situation is to teams like his. If you're the Chargers, Patriots and Panthers, and you're without the quarterback who has been the face of your franchise for nearly a decade or more, not to mention the alpha male in a room full of highly competitive men, how do you go about establishing a new pecking order within the locker room if guys aren't around each other?
Leaders aren't simply anointed. They have to earn that stature, and that's done through action, not words. Then there's the issue of learning a new system and establishing chemistry and cohesion among the quarterback and receivers, as well as among the linemen and linebackers who must "fit" together to make things work.
It says something, as Judy noted, that Saints coach Sean Payton is able to tell his players to take off the offseason. Payton is in his 14th season with New Orleans. His systems are in place. The culture is established. The pecking order is cemented.
Such is not the case for the Chargers, who said goodbye to Philip Rivers, the Patriots, who will be without Brady for the first time since 2000, and the Panthers, who released 2015 MVP Cam Newton, and, to a lesser extent, the Browns and Cowboys, who have new coaches but the same starting quarterbacks. However if forced to pick a team that had a losing record last season but could duplicate what the 49ers did in 2011, I'm going with the Cleveland Browns, who, on paper, had arguably had one of the league's best offseasons.
Chadiha: I do think the Browns are under the radar, which is a good place for them. They found a couple offensive tackles to give Baker Mayfield the protection he sorely needed -- with the signing of Jack Conklin and the drafting of Jedrick Wills Jr. -- and they still have plenty of overall talent on that roster.
We'll see if Kevin Stefanski can maximize the potential of that group, but if we're looking at teams with new coaches -- basically the situation Harbaugh found himself in with those 2011 49ers -- then I'll take the Dallas Cowboys. I don't know if there's a Super Bowl-winning coach in the NFL who takes more crap than Mike McCarthy, but he's got a pretty good track record of working with young quarterbacks.
He'll make Dak Prescott better (and Andy Dalton will be there for insurance, if Prescott's contract situation gets really sticky). McCarthy also will be blessed with an offense loaded with playmakers, and that unit will be aided by the return of coordinator Kellen Moore. McCarthy has talked openly about wanting to collaborate with Moore on this group's system.
I already can hear the chuckling about how all this will play out in the world Jerry Jones has built, but I'll buy in today. Jason Garrett had every opportunity to win the NFC East and couldn't push this bunch over the hump. Give a talented team to a new, established coach, and it says here that the results will be far better.
Silver: I'll go one step further and throw out a dark-horse pick to defy logic and sharply exceed expectations despite the presence of a new coach: The Cowboys' longtime rivals.
When Ron Rivera took the Washington job last December, at a time when many teams were competing for his services, one of the factors that swayed him was his belief that the roster was far more talented than commonly perceived. He has since tried to upgrade it and now will have the chance to sneak up on some opponents while playing in a relatively weak NFC East, at least on paper.
Rivera's head coaching career began during that lost 2011 offseason, and the Carolina Panthers proceeded to go 6-10 under his tutelage. He's a much better and wiser coach now, and he has an innate ability to reach players quickly and get them to buy in, which will come in handy once in-person activities resume.
I'm not saying he'll pull off what Harbaugh did nine years ago, but I wouldn't be shocked if Rivera's team reaches the postseason.