An on-field feud between a coach and star player. A bold proclamation from the team president that a winless squad will be a playoff team. A team that keeps losing games because of self-inflicted wounds.
As the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers head into their first meeting in four years Sunday, there has been a role reversal for the Bay Area rivals.
The Raiders (2-3) are the controversy-free team that appears on an upswing, while the 49ers (0-5) are mired in turmoil.
“It's different. It hasn't been that way since I've been here,” said Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who joined the Raiders in 2003. “It is a change of things. I don't know how they're handling it, but I know it's a difficult thing to handle.”
During a seven-year run of ineptitude in the Bay Area, when neither team has posted a winning record much less made the playoffs, the Niners at least have been able to maintain they were the more stable franchise.
That's not the case this year, as a team that came into the season with aspirations of winning the NFC West hasn't even been able to win a single game yet. The start is the worst for San Francisco since opening 0-7 in coach Bill Walsh's first season in 1979, but there are few signs this model is two years away from a Super Bowl title.
The Niners' drama began in training camp, when running back Glen Coffee quit the team, Kentwan Balmer refused to show up and was traded to Seattle, and tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree had a heated confrontation in practice.
There was a season-opening rout against the Seahawks, when the offense struggled to even get plays off on time. That led to accusations by coach Mike Singletary that a “rat” was leaking criticisms of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.
Then came a late-game collapse in the home opener against the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and another blowout at Kansas City that led to Raye's abrupt firing. There was also the release of popular veteran Michael Lewis, who left the team after getting upset with his diminished role.
Things only got worse from there. Nate Clements' fumble on an interception return, when it seemed like the Niners had a game won in Atlanta, led to another tight loss.
That was followed by last week's nationally televised shouting match between Singletary and Alex Smith, when the coach planned to bench his quarterback before Smith campaigned to stay on the field against Philadelphia.
“When I look at the first five games that we've had, and you know a lot of different things have transpired, but through those things, I think we have become a better football team,” Singletary said. “I think as time goes on, we will show that.”
Clearly team president Jed York agrees. He sent a text message to an ESPN reporter earlier in the week that the Niners would still win the NFC West despite the 0-5 start.
In a weak division where no team has won a road game out of the division, that is not an impossibility. But the Niners can't wait much longer to turn things around.
“I think this team is the most talented, the most mature that I've been on,” said Smith, who responded to the near benching and harsh booing with two late touchdown passes against the Eagles. “It's unfortunate that we're in this situation. But we're in it. We made this bed. We have to deal with it. We have to get ourselves out of it.”
What's going on for San Francisco is more typical of what happened across the bay in recent years.
But so far for the Raiders there have been no feuds between coach and player as happened with Art Shell and Jerry Porter; no lengthy holdouts by a No. 1 draft pick as with JaMarcus Russell; no public feud like the one between owner Al Davis and former coach Lane Kiffin that led to a bizarre in-season firing; and no allegations that a head coach assaulted an assistant like those last year with coach Tom Cable and Randy Hanson.
Instead there have been two wins, including last week's rally against San Diego that snapped a 13-game losing streak to the Chargers, and two close losses in games the Raiders could have won without mistakes down the stretch.
“I do think we have changed our mentality,” Cable said. “We've changed how we do business from Wednesday to Sunday. Now it's a matter of going out and repeating that kind of effort, intensity and desire that it takes on Sunday. I do think we're getting close to that. Where are we at? I think we're about three quarters of the way there. We're not there yet but we're getting there.”
A win this week would be a big step as the Raiders have not won back-to-back games since the end of the 2008 season.
The Niners are looking for just one victory, especially against a rival, to quiet the critics for even a brief moment.
“To some people, to the fans, whether we go 1-15 or however many games it is, we beat the Raiders and they'd be somewhat happy,” linebacker Patrick Willis said. “For us, it's about just going out and winning, playing at a high level and getting a win — regardless of who it is. It just happens to be our cross-town rival.”