Losing nine games to finish out a season will take its toll on any professional football player. For Jesse James, it was—in his word—“brutal.”
James came over from the Pittsburgh Steelers last season and hadn’t ever experienced a season in which his team lost more than six games in a single season. Losing nine in a row on the way to a 3-12-1 season was nearly unfathomable.
“We couldn’t find a way to win,” James said on Thursday. “We battled every week, but any time you go that long without winning, it’s tough on you mentally for the whole team. It was just a different situation I hadn’t been in.”
Personally, it was even worse for James. With the Steelers, James saw his contributions grow year after year. In his final year in Pittsburgh, he set career highs in receiving yards (423) and yards per catch (14.1). His career appeared to be ready to blossom, which is why the Lions handed him a four-year, $25 million contract in 2019.
But the year went astray quickly. James managed just 16 catches and 142 receiving yards, both the lowest personal totals since his rookie season.
“It wasn’t a great year,” James said. “Toughest year I’ve had as a pro, for sure. A lot of learning. You just work as hard as you could all year, and nothing really ended up working out for me personally.”
Getting James more involved in the offense this year has been a goal of this franchise from top to bottom. General manager Bob Quinn mentioned it at the end of last year (“Jesse James needs to get more involved in the offense”) and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell took the initiative to pull James aside for a couple of one-on-one offseason conversations this summer.
“We both talked back and forth, and he had a lot of good things to say,” James said. “I trust, moving forward, that we’ll have some opportunities to be able to make some plays.”
James also took his fair share of blame for last year. So he worked on improving his game, and feels he’s already made progress thanks, in part, to new Lions tight end coach Ben Johnson.
“He’s done a great job just really focusing on the little things,” James said. “You see a big outcome just working on different route fundamentals. We run our run game in a different way, so I really had a better chance to understand it going through this offseason process with him.”
With roster cuts just a couple days away, James shouldn’t have to worry his job security. His contract ties him to the Lions for at least one more season, maybe two. But if he wants to stick around long term, he’ll have to show those offseason improvements are significant enough to show up on Sundays.