It's time. As tough as it may be, it is finally the moment for everyone to set aside everything we thought we knew about certain teams (and in some cases players) and judge them solely based on what we have seen so far. Through four weeks of the NFL season, all the offseason prognostications and talk are just that. Talk.
Every season, and really every individual game, is a unique entity unto itself. Teams change because the makeup of their rosters change. Players change whether we notice it or not. Some get older and, like Brett Favre of the Vikings thus far, play worse. Some get older and, like LaDainian Tomlinson of the Jets thus far, somehow play better.
The point is, it is time to believe what we are seeing, as difficult as that may be. Just look at the state of Missouri as an example. Maybe the Kansas City Chiefs are a legit contender in the AFC West even though most experts felt they were at least a year away and expected the San Diego Chargers to walk away with the division. Maybe the St. Louis Rams aren't, well, those same old Rams anymore. On the flip side, even though it is still early, we have to at least consider the possibility that the Vikings, Colts and even the Cowboys aren't as good as we thought they would be.
There is no team in which this dynamic is more evident than the San Francisco 49ers. The consensus was that they were supposed to win the NFC West going away. Instead, they trail every other team in the division by two games. The offense has been inept and the defense, thought to be potentially dominant coming into the season, has been anything but.
For an 0-4 team like the Niners, or any of the other three winless teams for that matter, going to work every day is extremely unpleasant. Being an NFL player is no doubt a dream come true, but when a team is mired in a losing streak, especially at the start of a season, it can feel more like a nightmare. I've been there, going 0-5 as a rookie with the Washington Redskins in 2001 and 0-4 with the Buffalo Bills in 2004.
People act differently. Coaches and front-office personnel who are typically friendly may not even look at you or say hello in the hallways. Even if they do, it is clear that they are on edge. Everyone is. There are more fights between teammates on the practice field. The NFL is a high-pressure industry, and high pressure equals high stress, especially if a team is winless.
That's why, contrary to popular opinion, most players I know or played with are not apt to pack it in, which could be the fear of some fans in places like Carolina, Detroit and Buffalo. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Most players recognize that it is far more important to play well during a losing streak than it is while on a winning streak. When teams are winning, mistakes are pointed out but are typically forgiven. When a team has lost several games in a row, things tend to get hyper-scrutinized, and having a bad play or two could be the quickest way to the bench or, worse yet, off the roster.
Fortunately for the winless four, there is some hope. The 2001 Redskins won five in a row and finished 8-8. The 2004 Bills rallied to a 9-6 record before losing at home to Pittsburgh with a playoff berth on the line.
How did they get off the schneid, you might ask? Both teams turned it around by finding a way to make a critical play late in a game to get a win under their belts and then picked up momentum from there. There is no magic formula.
From the inbox
Q: The 49ers' Mike Singletary is looking like a linebacker coach and not a head coach. What do you see as his biggest hurdle to overcome?
Dwight in Woodbridge, Va.
A: I had high hopes for Singletary when he first got the job, but they are being diminished by the day. He had never been a coordinator previously and as such his strength is his leadership as opposed to being an X's and O's technician. I'm just not sure his team is still buying the message that he is delivering. I think a coach can go to the fire-and-brimstone motivational tactics only so many times before a team starts to tune him out.
Q: I just wanted to say that I appreciated the time you spent on the Redskins, and will always consider you a mortal enemy for later playing well for the Cowboys when, as I see it, your responsibility was to tear them apart from the inside. I mean, what's the point of having someone on the inside if they don't sabotage the enemy? Thanks a lot, traitor.
Chris in Reston, Va.
A: That's pretty funny whether you are being facetious or not. If you think I was a traitor by getting picked up on waivers by the Cowboys after the Redskins cut me, however, you should talk to some of my family and friends. I grew up near Philadelphia in Wyomissing, Pa., and was a huge Eagles fan growing up. In fact, I still have multiple autographs from the likes of Randall Cunningham, Keith Byars and the late Reggie White. That's why playing against the Birds was so awkward. It had been so ingrained in me to love those uniforms and helmets and yet here I was trying to take out guys like Hugh Douglas and Brian Dawkins, whom I had literally been in the stands cheering for a year or two earlier. Weird.
Q: With the recent benching of Arian Foster, do you feel the newfound stardom and success have gone to his head? Do you really believe that this will be the last time he misses a meeting?
Jeremy in Bangkok, Thailand
A: I think it is a pretty big assumption you are making there. Perhaps Foster simply overslept or had some other type of extenuating circumstance that we are unaware of. And yes, I do believe this is the last time Foster will miss a meeting. He is an undrafted free agent who is making the league minimum, and the fine for missing a meeting is several thousand dollars.
Q: Do you think the Cowboys can bounce back from their 1-2 start and win the NFC East again?
Hunter in Louisville, Ky.
A: They certainly have as good a chance as anyone else. Maybe even more so when you consider how talented they are, specifically at the important positions (offensive skill spots and pass-rushers). Every team in the division is clearly flawed, but if the Cowboys can pick up against the Titans where they left off against the Texans, they have an outstanding opportunity because the other three teams don't look capable of surging out in front of the pack.
Q: Do you think the Bears' problem on Sunday night was the O-line,Jay Cutler holding the ball too long, or the play calling that led to the Giants dominating the line of scrimmage?
Jason in Iroquois, Ontario, Canada
A: As is usually the case, it was a combination of all three of things that you mentioned and one you didn't. The Giants' defense deserves a tremendous amount of respect for its aggressive performance Sunday night, pounding Cutler and the Bears in a manner that the Cowboys and Packers were unable to do. Whenever a team gets that many sacks (10), it is clear that the offense is having myriad issues. But credit the Giants for taking advantage of those miscues time after time.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.