'You've never arrived': Constant desire to improve powers Lions' Jahlani Tavai

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Houston – Don’t tell Jahlani Tavai you can see improvement in his game. He doesn’t want to hear it. And don’t ask the Detroit Lions rookie linebacker whether he’s getting more comfortable as his first training camp progresses. The answer is no.

It’s not that Tavai isn’t getting better, making the appropriate strides in his development. It’s his internalized mantra of never being satisfied. Even after a brief, one-on-one chat, you quickly understand he’s a perfectionist. Incremental gains in his performance or production are quickly placed in the rear-view mirror. His focus is on where he’s falling short of his own lofty expectations, where he made correctable mistakes on the practice field – or worse, games – as he strives for the unattainable goal of perfection in his craft.

Detroit Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai hits Houston Texans quarterback Joe Webb III during the first half.

“You’re never going to be in a good comfort zone and you really don’t want to ever feel comfortable,” Tavai said after the Lions' 30-23 loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday night. “You always know there’s areas where you can improve, and tonight, there were quite a few things where I needed to be better. I need to improve in those areas to improve the trust of the defense.

“You’ve never arrived,” he said. “I approach it with a mentality that there’s always room for improvement.”

Looking beyond Tavai’s intrinsic motivation, we on the outside looking in are free to evaluate his performance and acknowledge the sharpening of his skills on the field. In his second preseason game, he played with notably better leverage and consistently found himself around the ball, resulting in four tackles on his 21 defensive snaps.

But Tavai knows marks on the stat sheet only tell a snapshot of the story. Where were the tackles made on the field? How many yards did the opponent gain? For Tavai, if the answer is greater than zero, he didn’t do his job well enough.

“I get irritated when they rush for three yards,” Tavai said. “That irritates me. I want them to be held to zero yards, or negative yards, every play. Whatever we can do to reach that point, that’s where I need to improve.”

This is the ultra-competitive, yet relatively unknown prospect the Lions drafted in the second round this year, stunning fans and pundits alike. He is not just a player who fits the team’s physical prototype for a linebacker in this defensive scheme; he’s one who loathes making mistakes and hates losing, even if it’s a meaningless preseason game.

“Yeah, it sticks with you,” he said after Saturday's game. “Any loss, any situation. I hate losing anything, whether it’s a football game or who is first to the car when I’m with my brothers."

Tavai understands he’s not unique in this regard and it’s apparent the Lions are trying to stuff their locker room with players who are equally passionate about succeeding as the rookie from Hawaii. It’s building that culture that is how the organization hopes to reverse course on its decades upon decades of ineptitude.

“You want to be the best at everything,” Tavia said. “And you get tired of losing, you know. I hate losing and I’m sure a lot of the guys standing around me (in this locker room) hate that feeling, too.”

Lions vs. Bills

What: Third preseason game

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Where: Ford Field, Detroit

Records: Lions 0-2, Bills 2-0

TV/radio: CBS/760 AM