There is no doubt that it hurts.
The sting of playoff elimination on any level is a grimacing experience that is only amplified by the number of years separating the most recent pain and the last taste of success.
For the Detroit Lions and many of its players as well as almost all of their fans, the pain is very real after a 45-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints after a decade-long playoff drought.
There is no doubt that pain will subside as the wounds heal – for players and fans alike – and as the recovery process begins a reflection of all that was accomplished in 2011 could provide expedience.
The Detroit Lions entered the year having won eight games in the previous three seasons. Eight.
They had a quarterback with an injury-prone or “china-doll” reputation (depending on who you talked to), having missed more games than he had played during his first two professional seasons.
To worsen the potential outlook on the season, the Lions schedule featured seven games against playoff teams from 2010, including four matchups with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears (the NFC Championship game participants). At the time it was released, they were considered to have the third toughest schedule in the league.
Despite odds stacked against them, the Lions quietly fielded a group of high-character players possessing both tenacity and talent.
The season treaded through both peaks and valleys, including a 5-0 start followed by two brief losing skids, but the Lions ultimately earned their first winning record and playoff berth in over a decade, exorcising significant ghosts along the way. They hadn't sniffed the post-season since 1999.
There is a maturation process for almost any team that is to become perennial contenders. A simple look at the two teams considered to be atop the heap of the NFC provides validation to that notion.
In Aaron Rodgers' first full season at quarterback from the Green Bay Packers (his fourth year in the NFL), he led the team to a 6-10 record in 2008. The following year, it was 11-5 and a Wild Card berth before losing to the Arizona Cardinals in an offensive shootout during Wild Card weekend.
Much like Detroit's loss to the Saints, the Packers offense performed but their defense couldn’t stop the red-hot Cardinals, who weren’t forced to punt during the entirety of the game.
The next year, the Packers went 10-6 and won the Super Bowl.
The New Orleans Saints took a different route than the Packers on their path to greatness but despite the contrast in navigation, their journey still occurred over multiple years.
The Saints acquired head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees – the catalysts to the team’s success – in 2006.
Immediately, the Saints showed improvement going 10-6 before a conference championship loss to the Bears.
The Saints then failed to make the post season in each of the next two years before their Super Bowl run in 2009.
The previous failures of the Packers and Saints both seem to be distant memories in a year when they are commonly accepted as the league’s best two teams.
The moral of the story? Success is earned through experience and though the process can be painful, the result is far more rewarding.
The Lions have a group of players eager to work and dedicated to success. Matthew Stafford turns 24 in February, and is already mentioned in the same breath as those two aforementioned quarterbacks. Over 5,000 passing yards provides some clout. Calvin Johnson proved he's arguably the best receiver in the league. But beyond the talented youth, the optimism remains rampant in the face of defeat.
“Just got back to the D from that (tough loss),” tweeted Louis Delmas. “To my fans, I love you guys. It was a struggle to get to this point but we can’t stop now. Back to our grind of working hard to rep for this city. The city of the D and I love it. The D is me and I’m not going anywhere (until) we win.”
Delmas wasn’t alone in his disappointment and commitment to improvement.
“We tried but lost to one of the best teams in the NFL,” tweeted Nate Burleson. “Thanks to our Fans, love ya’ll! We will bring a championship to the D.”
The consensus amongst the locker room is that the team is on the verge of greatness.
“This was just the beginning of something special with the Detroit Lions and I’m glad the team and fans welcomed me in,” tweeted Justin Durant. “Can’t wait (until) April.”
The loss hurts but only because the Lions have proved that they are capable of more than mediocrity.
Given their not-so-distant past failures, this is a pain that hurts so good.