Sympathy is a dirty word in the NFL. It's rarely given and never sought out. The system gives everyone a fair chance to build and compete, via the draft and with rules ostensibly applied with equanimity. So I don't feel bad for the Detroit Lions, nor do I think they want me or anyone else to.
What I do sense, however, is the overwhelming crush of what a steep hurdle the Lions face -- in both real and karmic terms --- to close a 53-year gap since their last championship. Consider me a Lions newbie if you wish, but it was difficult to sit at Soldier Field for three hours Sunday and not say, "These guys are absolutely cursed."
Consider the journey the Lions traveled from late in the second quarter, when they led the Chicago Bears 14-3, through the rest of the afternoon. Their franchise quarterback departed with a right shoulder injury that could sideline him for a month or more. Their lead dripped away like some kind of water torture until it was finally gone with 92 seconds remaining in the game. They appeared to have regained it a minute later, only to be denied by a call that quickly became the NFL's most-discussed play of Week 1.
When I arrived in the Lions' postgame locker room, I saw some knowing looks mixed with shock and some anger. Publicly, the Lions said the right things about putting the events behind them and moving on to Week 2. But as a friend of mine likes to say, people are human. No one in that locker room missed the departing whoosh of eight months' worth of optimism. In a matter of hours, it had dissipated.
No one is owed a single break, but it sure helps to get one once in a while. And the truth is many of us considered the Lions' Week 1 schedule a break of sorts. You looked at the Bears' circumstances -- a winless preseason, an offense in transition and a defense with more than its share of age and injuries -- and figured the Lions had a decent chance for a tone-setting upset/victory that would symbolically remove them from doormat status in this division.
You probably did the same. Trust me, you were not alone. To use a Lions/Bears analogy, safety Louis Delmas viewed Chicago as wounded prey.
"I told the defense that if we had any chance of beating these guys, it would be right now," Delmas said. "It's the first game of the season. Everybody there was just now getting used to one another." It was "overwhelming," he added, "to go out there for four quarters the way we did and come out on the short end of the stick."
Don't take it from just me or even Delmas. I think Lions fans produce some of the best fan blogs in the NFL, and I was struck by the emotions of DrewLions over at Pride of Detroit. Here's an excerpt from a Sunday evening post:
As I sit here staring at a blank page, I feel as if I scarcely have the heart to start writing. Today's game has rocked me to my core as a Lions fan. When Stafford went down, I honestly got nauseous. No lie. ... I watched all the hope and optimism that I've carried since the end of the 2009 season come crashing down as hard as Julius Peppers on Stafford's shoulder. All the cheering and excitement came to an abrupt halt and the vision of Shaun Hill warming up after halftime chilled me to the bone. ...
A few weeks back, I playfully commented in someone's fanpost about a nightmare scenario with Stafford going down for the year. Now I was staring at that scenario in week one. In my mind, there was no worse situation. This was it. The season is lost. My optimism was completely drained from my body. Right or wrong, that is the way I felt. My mind started to reel at the thought of all of the lost progress losing Stafford would mean. I came unraveled.
A part of me simply wants to fall to my knees with arms reaching to the sky, screaming "Why? Why? WHY!?!?" What in the hell have we done to deserve such cruelty and suffering?
Never has a [loss] felt so empty or a season felt so lost so early. One play has changed the course of our entire season.
It might seem that way, but the Lions can still have the kind of season they want -- one that, by the end of the year, suggests they have unquestionably moved closer to playoff caliber -- if they can regroup quickly. It will start with Hill, a nine-year veteran with a 10-6 career record as a starter. At the very least, the Lions should draw some comfort from the fact that Stafford's replacement will neither panic nor run out of the back of the end zone.
"In the locker room," Hill said, "you could see [disappointment] in everyone's eyes. But I kind of got the sense that people's shoulders were back and their heads were up. That's a positive thing, for sure. That's all you can ask for. We've got to re-group and put this behind us."
You hear similar statements in every losing locker room in the NFL. But can the 2010 Lions put such a devastating turn of events behind them? Or are they doomed to 15 games of expecting the worst?
Add that to the list of difficult tasks piled up on the desk of coach Jim Schwartz, who if he didn't know before, knows now what he's gotten himself into. The best thing that can be said about Sunday's game is that it revealed the Lions finally have a strength -- their defensive line -- to build off of. New defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch produced a paradigm performance in his first regular-season game with the Lions, collecting 10 solo tackles and harassing Bears quarterback Jay Cutler throughout the afternoon.
Schwartz personally recruited Vanden Bosch during free agency and will lean heavily on him to provide steady leadership in this early rough patch. Vanden Bosch was one of the last Lions players to leave the locker room Sunday. I don't really know him yet, but I would say he looked angry more than shell-shocked.
"We're going to win some of those and we're going to lose some of those," he said. "I like the way we as a team battled. We had a lot of adverse situations. We had guys play with a lot of intensity and attitude. The things that I saw from this team today will serve us well. We'll win some games this year."
That attitude provides some hope for the rest of the season. There's no reason to feel bad for the Lions. But if you didn't understand before, you probably do now. Man, oh, man. This is going to be hard.