Over the years, it's happened to the strongest of personalities and the most earnest of players. When you lose and you lose, and then you lose some more, eventually everyone succumbs. In NFL parlance, they become (Detroit) Lionized.
Kyle Vanden Bosch hasn't gotten there yet, and here's hoping he never does. The Lions defensive end took some time this week to speak via conference call and offered the most sincere thoughts I've heard for why the Lions are closer to a turnaround than you might think. It was compelling not just for the words, or that they came from a player with eight years' experience on another team, but because they were layered on top of what has been the most unsung NFL performance during the first two weeks of the season.
As you see in the chart accompanying this post, Vanden Bosch leads all NFL defensive linemen with 17 tackles. He has followed through on his training camp promise to chase ball carriers all over the field, a pledge that is already spreading to some teammates, and said he is playing the best football of his career.
The Lions are 0-2 this season and have lost 39 of their past 42 games dating back to 2007. But Vanden Bosch said: "I was actually pleasantly surprised when I first got here at the talent and the people and the quality of players in this locker room. And the way I see it, there is no reason we shouldn't be winning now. I don't see this as a long-term rebuilding project. We should, with the pieces we have now, be able to win games. And this team is only going to get better down the road."
A start would be upsetting the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at the Metrodome, where the Lions literally haven't won since the Clinton Administration. (It was Dec. 14, 1997, to be exact.) It's an extreme illustration of the Lions' plight over the past decade, one that makes Vanden Bosch's energy level all the more jarring. He said he has always played that way, but now he knows he can set a new tone for an entire franchise.
"It's what I think about every day," Vanden Bosch said. "Part of the reason Coach [Jim] Schwartz brought me here was not just for my impact on the field, but my impact off the field and on this defense and just bringing a relentless attitude. It's part of who I am, but I make a conscious effort to bring that type of leadership to this team."
False hustle is usually a waste of time, but Vanden Bosch has channeled his into production. That's what tends to grab the attention of coaches and teammates.
Last week, Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham called him "the best football player I've ever been around in my life," which Vanden Bosch said was the "highest compliment a coach has given me." Meanwhile, it was hard to watch rookie Ndamukong Suh chasing Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick last week and not wonder if Vanden Bosch's attitude hadn't already impacted him.
That's why I'm not ready to dismiss Vanden Bosch's claim that "the wheels are turning" toward establishing a winning program. And it's why I didn't think it was hokey when he said that players have made a point to describe themselves as "the new era of the Detroit Lions." Here's more:
"Really, anything that happened over the last 10 years, anything that happened last year, it isn't us. It isn't this core group of players. We feel like the only history that we need to focus on is what has happened this year. We are 0-2, but we need to learn from those losses and fix them quickly, because we feel like we can be a good team and compete and we can win games. Now it's just a matter of going out and doing it."
When you hear those words from a 31-year-old defensive lineman who is running down receivers 20 yards downfield, you tend to listen and accept a little more. Through two games, at least, Vanden Bosch has been worth every penny the Lions paid him.