EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The last place most people expected to find the San Francisco 49ers through three weeks of the season was last place.
That's where the preseason favorites in the NFC West reside, behind even the Rams. Keeping company with such NFL dregs as the Browns, Bills, Lions and Panthers seems so unbecoming for a franchise supposedly on the rise.
Maybe the Niners will turn it around and surge to the top of a division where the champion just might finish with eight victories. Or maybe they will continue to underachieve, because there are some deep-seated problems in San Francisco.
Indeed, all five of the 0-3 teams have major issues, but none had the expectations placed on them that the 49ers did.
"I am convinced that being at the place that we are right now has allowed us to see some things and do some things and make some changes that will take us where we need to go," coach Mike Singletary says. "Thankfully, it's early in the season. And we still have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. And that's the way we see it."
Here's how we see it — for the 49ers, Browns, Bills, Panthers and Lions.
SAN FRANCISCO — If 49ers fans are confused by this wretched start, all they need focus on is the confusion on the sideline, in the huddle, in the locker room. Everywhere.
The Niners have had communications problems, whether in play-calling, getting defenders lined up properly or even in reaching agreement among the coaches on what to do. Something as basic as having the correct number of players on the field has been an issue at times.
San Francisco ranks 27th running the ball, which might be understandable if Frank Gore was sidelined. He's fine, but there's been little running room because of inconsistent blocking, and too much emphasis on the pass, where the line also has struggled: Alex Smith has a 66.2 quarterback rating with seven sacks.
Defensively, the Niners have a beast in All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. But they've forced only two turnovers and have seven giveaways on offense.
Singletary fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye on Monday. His own job could be on the line next if the 49ers don't get straightened out.
"When you have a situation like we have right now, when you have a team that's 0-3, particularly when you were expected to do great things by the media at the beginning of the season, it is important for us to maintain the focus of being the best team that we can possibly be," Singletary says. "It is our focus to win the division. It is our focus to continue to move forward and get that done."
It sure looks that way with the Browns, who haven't been terrible but just can't finish games. Cleveland has led in the fourth quarter of all three losses, which doesn't say much for its leadership down the stretch.
Still, the overall talent level is low, which falls on coach Eric Mangini and the overhaul he's been part of. Mangini's nickname — "Mangenius" — long ago disappeared. His role as a head coach soon might follow, particularly if Holmgren gets the itch to return to the sideline.
BUFFALO — The Bills' last playoff game was the Music City Miracle loss. For those of you counting, that's 10 years ago, tied with Detroit for the league's longest current streak without making the postseason.
Hiring Chan Gailey was supposed to fix the offense, and the Bills did score 30 points at New England last weekend. But the Patriots are struggling on defense and Gailey couldn't work any magic with QB Trent Edwards, who was benched and then cut.
Losing has become a way of life in western New York, with the offensive woes even plaguing a defense that has some good players. Until the Bills can consistently score points, their overburdened D won't be carrying them out of last place in the highly competitive AFC East.
CAROLINA — The woes here are pretty obvious. When a coach enters the final season of a contract, he becomes a lame duck. John Fox's relationship with owner Jerry Richardson is strained after being denied a contract extension.
Fox's only chance to retain his job — maybe — is for the Panthers to return to the victorious ways of his early years in Charlotte. The dilemma: It's difficult to get players to perform for someone who is on the way out and whose authority isn't nearly as strong as when he was taking the team to the Super Bowl.
Like the Browns, Bills and Lions, the Panthers have had quarterback problems that exacerbate the losing situation. The outstanding running game hasn't made up for the failures at QB, offsetting a decent defense.
DETROIT — Probably the least dire situation among the 0-3s. Yeah, that's difficult to believe considering the Lions have won two of their last 35 games. But the organization is moving in a positive direction behind GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz.
Detroit has been without the quickly developing Matt Stafford at quarterback for most of the last two games, and he's out again Sunday. Stafford is one of several strong additions under Mayhew's watch — are you watching, Matt Millen? — that include NT Ndamukong Suh, RB Jahvid Best, safety Louis Delmas, cornerback Aaron Berry and TE Brandon Pettigrew.
"Everyone can see and feel that we're a better team and there's a reason to have expectations," Lions kicker Jason Hanson says. "But it wasn't good to go 0-3 in our situation because the longer you go without getting it done, the more you start to doubt."