England: the hard evidence
England, says Martin Johnson, are getting better. "There is progress and improvement," he said after Saturday's draw at Murrayfield. "We have the potential there."
It was a comment that raised a lot of eyebrows, not to mention a few hackles. If there are green shoots poking through, they don't seem to be hugely evident to many England fans.
So, in the spirit of enquiry, I've been doing a little research. A morning digging out some detailed statistics, an afternoon picking the brains of World Cup winners, coaching staff and current players.
Throughout it all, we'll try to be as positive as possible, both to lift the mood and refute complaints of media negativity. Spring, after all, is in the air, and in any case, no-one likes a whinger.
Stats first. Johnson has been in charge for 23 months, so I've looked at three Six Nations seasons - 2008, Brian Ashton's last tournament in charge, as the pre-Jonno yardstick; 2009, and this championship so far.
Johnson says there are plenty of reasons for England fans to be optimistic
Let's get the simple stuff out of the way early. In 2008, Ashton's England finished second in the table with a win-loss record of 3-2. Johnson's men repeated that last year. England, third at present, could still match that position this time around - if they beat France, and Ireland lose to Scotland. Will that happen? Remember, we're being optimistic. Let's dig a little deeper.
In 2008, England scored eight tries and conceded five. In 2009, the ratio was 16:5. So far this season, with the game in Paris to come, it's 5:5.
Those are harder numbers to be upbeat about. England might yet shut out France at the weekend, but Marc Lievremont's free-running side will fancy adding to their 13 tries so far. Can England score the three tries they need to match the tally from two years ago, and get even halfway to last year's total? In the whole of the 2008-09 season, England scored 26 tries. So far in 2009-10, they've scored six. Omens have been more promising.
We'll broaden it out to points scored. In 2008, 108; in 2009, 124. This season England have a grand total of 78. This decline is steeper than any experienced by their northern hemisphere rivals; while the men in white were the second-highest scorers in 2008 and the joint highest in '09, they now lie fourth.
To the nitty-gritty nasty business up front. Two years ago, England won 21 turnovers, the most of any team in the championship. Last year they did even better, with 33 - again, the best of the bunch. This year, they've won just five, fewer than any other nation. France have three times as many.
England have found tries hard to come by
The number of off-loads from the tackle tell a similar tale. 30 in 2008, up to 43 a year ago, and now down to 22. There's a game to come, of course, but that's the lowest number in the championship.
What of line breaks? England produced 16 in Ashton's last season, when Danny Cipriani flowered so briefly against Ireland, and 21 last year, as many as Grand Slam champions Ireland. This season they've made 12.
I can sense some of that positivity ebbing away, so let's try to lift the mood. The error-count dropped in Johnson's first season and continues to do so - from 69 in 2008 to 54 in 2009 and now down to 31. There are those who say that simply reflects England's lack of adventure and ambition - France have made 54 errors this season, and they're on the brink of a Grand Slam - but we're supposed to be looking on the bright side, so let's move on.
Enough of the stats. What's the view from within the camp? Here's what the always-honest Lewis Moody, who's seen plenty of different England teams over his half-century of caps, told me at the team's training HQ on Wednesday.
"It's weird, because inside the squad there's probably the best atmosphere there has been since 2003," he said. "The coaches have put a lot of effort into creating the right environment, where everyone feels able to talk to them, whether you're a senior player or a young lad, and it feels like a very positive place to be.
"Now we understand that it doesn't matter what happens in the hotel or on the training pitch, that it's about results and performances, but there's so much reason for optimism. You see the talent in this squad close up and you know.
"We should have been going for the Grand Slam this weekend - we were in a position against Ireland where we were winning with eight minutes to go and should have finished it off, and Scotland was another we should have won.
"Without playing our best rugby, we could be going into this weekend having won four out of four, and that says a lot of a team that's only really been playing at 70%. There's a lot more to come from this side."
Austin Healey, who has watched every England match this season from the stands and pored over the tapes in his job as analyst for BBC Sport, doesn't quite see it the same way.
"At this point, asking me now, I can't see much improvement at all over the last year, and in particular over this Six Nations," he told me. "While they've won some games this year, they haven't won enough, and their performances haven't been up to scratch.
"I don't think you can spot any discernable style of play they're aiming for. Listening to the ref-link during the matches, they seem to have a lot of calls for a lot of plays, but they don't seem to know how to implement them in games. Some of the players like to do certain things that potentially don't match each other, and that's causing big issues.
"There are basic requirements they aren't getting right. Their alignment in the backs between 10, 12 and 13 is what's really breaking the game down for them, and their constant inability to win quick ruck ball would kill any team.
"We never see the forwards running off 10 or 12 or even in the wider channels. Their off-loading beyond the tackle is poor, and their rucking at the moment is pretty much non-existent. They don't get past the ball at the moment - the majority of England forwards just flop on the ball, which just slows up their own passages of play.
"I believe Martin Johnson needs to make some changes to his coaching staff, but I also believe that if you look at that England side, five years ago they maybe would have had three, four or five players in a world XV, whereas at the moment I'm not sure there's one player who would even get in a composite Six Nations team. And that's quite worrying.
"As a team you have to find your way through it, but I'm not sure this team knows a different pathway."
World Cup winner Josh Lewsey feels the same. "I don't think it is through lack of effort, and you can't fault the attitude - the players are giving everything," he told my colleague Bryn Palmer this week. "I am just not convinced it is entirely clear how they are trying to play the game and what the overall plan is - not just in each game, but in terms of developing the team towards the World Cup next year."
Ah, team development. Johnson has been criticised for favouring old stagers ahead of young guns. Even as he gave Ben Foden and Chris Ashton their first starts against France, he brought back the grizzled likes of Mike Tindall and Simon Shaw.
How do the stats for this add up? I've taken the starting XVs for the last three meetings with France (the 24-13 win under Ashton in 2008, the 34-10 thumping last year and the team announced by Johnson on Wednesday). The average age of each? Exactly the same - 28 years old. If it's hardly a rush of fresh blood, it's not an aging team either.
Wells has found himself carrying the can for England's displays
To the England hierarchy. Assistant coach John Wells sees the squad in action every day they're in camp. He's also the man who seems to cop most flack from press and punters for England's poorer displays.
When I put him on the spot, Wells told me there were four areas where he feels England have genuinely improved over the last 18 months - starting with their scrummaging.
"We've brought young kids with very few or no caps into the fierce world of international rugby," he said. "Matt Mullan's been capped, David Wilson, Dylan Hartley - and Dan Cole too, who's having an outstanding season. Bringing in one young guy to an experienced front row is one thing, but to bring in three or four on a regular basis - I think we've done a really good job of blending those guys into the system and producing a pretty good scrum.
"We've also found a way of getting the forwards more involved in the game as ball-carriers, whether it's tight or three metres from the fringes, or in the slightly wider channels. I'm not saying we've done it well, or that we've got the balance right - I don't think we have. But a lot of the tries we've created have come from good driving pressure close to the fringes.
"Thirdly, we're actually creating loads and loads of opportunities. What we're not doing is finishing them. It might not seem so, but if you watch it back, there have been a lot of four-on-twos and three-on-ones. If we weren't creating them, that would be far more worrying. It's frustrating for us and for people to watch that, but we will start taking those chances.
"Fourthly - and it's quite right that people have been critical, because we haven't been securing the results - we've been in positions to win games. Against Ireland at the death, we drove 20 metres from a line-out right up to their line. We didn't finish it as we should have done, and that's our fault, but if we had, we'd have won the game. We weren't stuck on our own line. Something similar happened against Scotland - in injury-time, we marched on and on, and then just missed the drop-goal chance."
So there we have it. Set fair, becalmed or sinking fast? "I would love to see England doing better," stresses Healey. "I hate watching them lose, and it all sounds very negative. But it's very hard to find any positivity at the moment."
I'll let you make your own mind up from here.