NSF funding isn't enough to maintain a group. While some focus on NIH, in my field, going to DoD (army, navy, air force) is the way. All three branches of DoD have young investigator programs (YIPs). To be eligible, you have to be a U.S. citizen, and you must be no more than 5 years out from your PhD. These requirements whittle down the playing field, so your chances of being funded - if you're eligible - are seemingly high. (Although the last ONR YIP funding rate was < 10%, sigh).
The problem is with getting your foot in the door. For NSF, you can submit an idea - your idea with whatever application you like. But for DoD, you need to bounce ideas off of the program manager to find what fits into their program. If you've got a great idea but it doesn't fit in with the goals of DoD, then it won't get funded. So in other words, communicating with a program director prior to submission is critical.
Now for the YIP. I am exceedingly frustrated with the way program managers in DoD uniformly ignore young investigators - even those inquiring about YIP. You can call, email, send in unsolicited white papers, and there is a brick wall of silence. It's not just me. Mr. JP has the brick wall. Colleagues get the brick wall. So then, I ask, who is getting these YIPs? I talked with one colleague who is a star, and he gets the brick wall from other military branches. With this particular YIP that he got, someone actually wrote back. Other advice is to arrange appointments with the PMs when you are in DC. That's a great idea, and I would love for that to happen. But my emails and calls saying, "Hey, I'm in your neck of the woods, let's talk," get ignored.
So you know what? I'm submitting my YIP anyways, with or without your input. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.