Sunderland have improved under Gus Poyet's management but they are taking baby steps at a time when incremental progress punctuated by the odd regressive wobble simply will not do.
Teams stuck to the bottom of the Premier League at Christmas require great leaps forward if relegation is to be avoided, yet Norwich's collection of a most straightforward point suggests Poyet's players remain an awful long way from making a great leap forward.
Last Tuesday night's extra-time League Cup quarter-final win against Chelsea appeared even more of a damaging irrelevance on a day when, looking anything but sure-footed, Sunderland lost their new found balance.
Poyet's mood was not improved by the late, arguably harsh, red card shown to Wes Brown for a stupid challenge on Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Martin Atkinson could possibly have been more lenient but Brown did jump in with reckless abandon and Sunderland will not win any appeal.
"It's disappointing, I wasn't expecting this," said a deeply downcast Poyet. "We have no excuses. I'm not going to comment on the referee's decision. That's life. It's getting more and more difficult for us. The quality is what you see, there is no more but there were things that happened today that are difficult to explain."
With Sunderland distinctly edgy, Chris Hughton's side passed and moved smoothly enough as Leroy Fer proved his midfield worth. When Robert Snodgrass crumpled under Phil Bardsley's challenge, Norwich appealed for a penalty but Snodgrass's collapse was a little dramatic for Atkinson's tastes.
Nathan Redmond unleashed a swerving shot from distance but Vito Mannone turned it around a post quite brilliantly. The odd cameo from the clearly talented Fabio Borini apart, John Ruddy had very little to do, the visiting goalkeeper suffering a few minor frights.
Despite Lee Cattermole's best efforts, Sunderland struggled to force any sort of tempo and, with Norwich coasting comfortably, the atmosphere remained stubbornly flat. Exploiting space vacated by the out-of-position Sebastien Bassong, Borini shot. It flew wide. The same fate met an overly ponderous Jozy Altidore whose physical presence and nuisance value do not compensate for his lack of goals.
Altidore and friends struggled to make much happen, let alone actually get behind a visiting defence they were playing virtually all their football in front of.
It could have been worse. When John O'Shea missed a header the ball fell invitingly to Gary Hooper but, taken by surprise, the striker could not react swiftly enough. Judging by Poyet's expression half-time came as a relief.
His side began the second half in more dominant fashion but failed to move the ball quickly enough. Weathering this gentle breeze, Norwich reasserted themselves and, clearly increasingly alarmed by so much home puffing and huffing, Poyet replaced Emmanuele Giaccherini with Adam Johnson. With Altidore's lack of movement glaringly apparent, the crowd agitated for Steven Fletcher's liberation from the bench and, taking the hint, Sunderland's manager threw him on.
When Brown's header brushed the outside of an upright after a Sebastian Larsson corner provoked rare dissaray in the Norwich defence, hope flickered. It flared again when Michael Turner's superb, last ditch, tackle denied Fletcher a goal.
Poyet's substitutions were working but Wearsiders groaned when Norwich's key striker and record signing Van Wolfswinkel marked his return from a lengthy injury by stepping off the bench. Undeterred, Ki Sung-yueng spotted that Ruddy had been drawn off his line but his intended chip into an empty net ended up floating fractionally over the bar.
It served as a microcosm of a grey Wearside day about to be blemished by Brown's dismissal. Hughton, though, could see only blue sky. "A draw and a clean sheet away is always a good result," he said. "Wes Brown's challenge was definitely a red but it was a shame because it wasn't that sort of game."