And it would have been far worse but for the sustained excellence of their goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, who was voted the North East Football Writers' Player of the Year for 2012. Still only 24, he has been immense, a beacon of calm in amid the chaos.
There were stories Sunderland had beaten competition from PSV Eindhoven and Udinese to sign Mignolet from the Belgian side Sint-Truiden in June 2010, but nobody knew what to expect when an injury to Craig Gordon meant he was thrust into action for the opening game of the 2010/11 season.
Sunderland, having been reduced to 10 men, threw away a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2, but Mignolet was named man of the match. In his next home game, he made a startling reaction save to deny Emmanuel Adebayor as Sunderland beat Manchester City 1-0.
He played in each of the first 11 games until Gordon returned, and when the Scotland keeper fractured his arm for a second time, Mignolet returned to establish himself as the regular first choice.
He is now so popular that when he had a shocker in the 4-2 home defeat to West Bromwich Albion earlier this season, fumbling a simple through-ball to gift Shane Long the second goal, most fans just shrugged.
He had saved them enough for his account to be well in credit.
So popular is he, in fact, that he not only has his own song, but it is unique, rather than being derived from one of the familiar templates.
To the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, fans chant, "Ah-Mig-no-let, Ah-Mig-no-let, Ah-Mig-no-let, Ah-Mig-no-let / He's Our Keeper/ The Belgian Keeper/ He's Simon Mignolet".
Mignolet is self-aware enough to know, though, that fans might not have been so sympathetic had that mistake come earlier in his time at the club.
"If I had made an error in my first games I would still be the same keeper, but it might not have turned out for me," he said.
"That's how vulnerable the position of the keeper is. You can't really think about it. But it is there in the back of your head and you know it has happened to a lot of guys."
Yet had he not lost his place in Sint-Truiden's youth team, Mignolet might easily have ended up a midfielder like his brother, Wouter, who plays for the Belgian regional league side Oorbeek United.
He was told he lacked pace, so to help him work on his speed, Mignolet's father, Stefan, organised training drills for him in a field near his house.
"My dad said I might gain some pace over five metres with goalkeeping sessions," Mignolet said.
"We played every day on that pitch. An old farmer couldn't look after it, so my father asked to use it as a playground. When I turned 18, I got into the first team.
"And there must have been some talent, but I was coached well, and my dad was a keeper, so maybe I was born to be a keeper. But you need a bit of luck. My team lost a goalie, I took my chance and soon I was in Belgium's Under 18s."
If he has been lucky in his elevations to Sint-Truiden and Sunderland's first teams, though, Mignolet is unfortunate to have emerged at a time when Belgium is blessed with another top-class keeper in Thibaut Courtois, who is on loan at Atletico Madrid from Chelsea.
Mignolet has won 12 caps for Belgium since his 2011 debut, but in any other era it would be far more.
Yet Mignolet, for all his talent, was so concerned he might not make it that he studied for a degree in political science at the University of Leuven, completing his finals last summer.
"It was not because of an interest in politics," he conceded. "It was to have something behind me in case something went wrong."
It is a sense of caution and humility that has made him one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
His task now is to try to ensure Sunderland stay there.
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