He won a Super Bowl with the Patriots and experienced consistent winning seasons. Even last season, when the Detroit Lions were 6-10, there was consistent inconsistency with wins and losses smattered through Matt Patricia’s first year as head coach.
This season? This was different. The losing has been constant. Detroit has won once since September. The Lions were eliminated from playoff contention on Thanksgiving, and a season that held promise at the start resulted in a failure to meet expectations and another year lost, with Detroit 3-11-1 heading into Sunday’s finale versus the Green Bay Packers.
“This has been tough,” Wilson said. “This has probably been the toughest year for me, personally.”
The players know better than anyone what it feels like to work hard for something, put in countless hours and then have it all unravel on Sunday in front of tens of thousands of people in the stands and who knows how many others on television.
How do they cope? What happens when they go home Sunday evenings? It depends.
Wilson will walk in the door after games and his two children will immediately ask him to play. Sometimes, they even want him to play football in the yard — although there are Sundays when he’s too beaten up to do that and steers them instead to a game of Madden or “T-Rex Rocks.”
It’s his way to decompress and make sure he’s spending quality time with his kids, who sometimes don’t get to see him as often during the season.
“We just kind of get lost in, maybe we’ll go out. Maybe we’ll pull out some of their race-car tracks and do race cars on the thing or play video games or, shoot, maybe even doing homework,” Wilson said.
Wilson wasn’t always like that. When he was a younger player, losses would gnaw at him. Then he had children. Got married. He realized the importance of his role in their lives and that “even though things may be s—ty for me,” he needs to compartmentalize for his kids.
If the Lions lose, rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai is not happy and typically avoids the outside world on Sunday nights. While he doesn’t overthink things, he needs to learn while it’s fresh.
He rewatches the game twice Sunday night, trying to see what questions he needs to ask. What worked and what didn’t work? Did he make the right calls? The right adjustments to what he saw? Was there anything he forgot?
“I get a little pissed because, damn, it literally is always just the little things,” Tavai said. “That’s what I always preach to myself, make sure I do the little things because those little things always add on and in a game, that could be, like, that critical moment.
“So just, I’m going to take it to heart how I grade myself. I got to.”
It’s different in the pros. At the University of Hawaii, trying to keep his starting role kept Tavai going. In the NFL, too many poor performances could mean unemployment. While he’s safer than most, in the first year of a four-year contract as a second-round pick, that pressure makes it more intense.
When he’s done watching the game, he pulls away until the next morning — unwinding by watching any sort of movie, from horror to romantic comedies. Anything to distract him. After Detroit’s loss to Minnesota on Dec. 8, he binge-watched episodes of “Friends.”
“I needed a little comedy,” Tavai said. “Needed something to cheer me up.”
He’ll wake up Monday morning still in a mood. The reality of the loss hits him. Coming to the office later that day to go through meetings and start anew helps him move on.
Veteran offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins is the opposite. He hates losing, but he’s also one of the most consistently positive people the Lions have. Unlike Tavai and Wilson, Wiggins has been a football vagabond.
The 31-year-old has been on four NFL teams, between the practice squad and active roster, in his career, and had a short stint with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the defunct United Football League. He’s also been sitting on his couch, not on a team, as pro football temporarily moved on without him.
The closest way he can describe losing like the Lions have this season is “just like getting punched in the gut.”
Yet whenever Wiggins is close to getting down, he thinks back to where he’s been, and that gives him the centering he needs to keep going on — and turn that into positive reinforcement for teammates who have had more linear careers than he has.
“I’m grateful just to have a job, still,” Wiggins said. “I’m grateful to be in the league still, so I look at it like that. I come into work every day and try to be the same guy whether we’re 10-2 or 3-9-1 or whatever it is.
“It’s tough, but I’m grateful to be here.”
In a tough season, players hear it from everywhere. Family and friends will ask what’s going on. If they are on social media — and almost every player is at this point — they’ll hear it from strangers shielded by the anonymity of a smartphone or computer screen.
It led cornerback Darius Slay, one of the more popular Lions players on social media and the team’s only Pro Bowler, to block over 1,000 people on Twitter since Week 2 of this season.
“I block every negativity they come at me [with],” Slay said. “They say something about me or any other Lion, they talk crazy — block.”
He’s had to restrain himself at times with his 76,000-plus followers, which led to the Twitter blocking spree. Once he blocks you, it’s permanent. With most of the negativity coming from Twitter, this season has given him perspective.
Although losing, clearly, makes it tougher.
“All I get on love is [Instagram]. IG love me. Twitter don’t love me. Sometimes. Sometimes,” Slay said. “Twitter sometimes. I got some awesome fans out there.
“… I just hope that one day they just get in our shoes …”
Slay wouldn’t repeat some of the worst stuff that he’s heard, but shook his head at the vile nature of some of the comments.
And yet he understands the negativity and the frustration. As one of the veteran players on the Lions, he grasps how badly the fans want to see a winner. And how badly Detroit wants to win.
“We feel the same way,” Slay said. “We want to win just as badly as they want us to win but, shoot, it’s hard to win. It’s a tough game to play.”
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