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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Jon Kitna's Positive Attitude Lands Start For Detroit Lions

Aug. 2, 2006
By Clark Judge
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are halfway through practice when quarterback Jon Kitna takes a snap, retreats several steps, then uncorks a pass to his right -- a perfectly wound spiral that travels 30 yards before hitting Mike Furrey just before he steps out of bounds.

Journeyman Jon Kitna gets another shot as a starting quarterback. (Getty Images)
There is nothing extraordinary about the completion ... until what happens afterward.

Kitna turns to pat his center on the back. He shakes hands with his tight end. And he rushes to Furrey to congratulate him, with Kitna grinning as he pulls off his helmet.

So what? So it is everything you didn't see from the Lions a year ago, and I'm not talking about execution. I'm talking about harmony, with the quarterback and his teammates acting as if they actually belong together -- or, as they did not in 2005.

Of course, those were the days of Joey Harrington, and I don't know why he didn't fit in with the Lions or why coaches disliked the guy. All I know is that he's gone, and the Lions ... and Harrington ... are better for it.

Now they're in the hands of Kitna, who served the last two years as Carson Palmer's caddy in Cincinnati, and having him here is a good thing. In fact, it could be a very good thing.

Forget that he has the trust of a coaching staff. What's critical is that he's liked and admired by teammates who tired of Harrington. The difference is that they see Kitna as one of them -- someone who is tough, resilient, competitive and determined to do the right thing.

"What I like about him, more than the fact that he's bright, is that he's confident," said new head coach Rod Marinelli. "He knows how to lead, and the No. 1 thing this team needs is directional leadership."

That is what makes Kitna the right man at the right moment for Detroit. The Lions were short in the leadership department until Marinelli stepped into the picture, hired two top-notch coordinators -- Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson -- and put the club on alert that he would tolerate no nonsense.

Now look at them.

Detroit Lions
Out of Nowhere Man
DE Kalimba Edwards

OK, so he's not exactly an unknown, but look for Edwards to make an impact as a pass rusher. OK, so he led the team with seven sacks last year. Big deal. The Lions think he can do more, a lot more, which is why they re-signed him when Cleveland started courting him in the offseason. Now, Detroit has him paired with defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, and that's a good thing. Henderson coached John Abraham in New York, and Edwards -- who played behind Abraham at the University of South Carolina -- is determined to outplay his former teammate. Well, here's your chance, Kalimba.
Five things you should know
"Coach Marinelli doesn't let any little thing go," said Kitna. "There is nothing that will handle itself; he handles it right up front."

He proved it by hiring Kitna and firing Harrington, and what a difference. The black cloud that hung over this franchise much of last season has lifted -- and maybe it's only because it's training camp -- but players, coaches and front-office staff seem more comfortable with the new order.

Maybe Marinelli's style flies. Maybe it doesn't. But it's worth a try, especially if it has players rallying around the quarterback.

"I'm glad we have a veteran guy here," cornerback Dre' Bly said of Kitna. "He's more of a leader. Guys seem to respond well to him, and that's what has to happen for you to be a winning team or a playoff team."

Wait a minute, did he say playoff team? The last time the Lions won anything was 2000 when they were 9-7. The last time they were in the playoffs was 1999. But if the Detroit Tigers can jump to the top of the major league standings, I guess anything's possible.

"Can we reach the playoffs?" said Bly. "Damn right, because we have the talent. The same thing happened to us in St. Louis when I got drafted (1999). The year before we were 4-12, and we were able to turn it around just like that because we believed and we were prepared. This is the same situation. We have the playmakers."

But it's not a shortage of playmakers that handicapped the Lions. As Kitna pointed out, "It's not about talent; it's about attitude and having 53 guys pulling together."

That's where the Lions belly-flopped a year ago, with the coaching staff and front office in a tug-of-war over Harrington.

The results were predictable. The club swooned, players griped and coaches were fired. Now there's peace and stability, with Marinelli announcing at the beginning of camp that he was committed to one quarterback ... and it was Kitna.

"From day one, he told us how it was going to be," said Bly. "Either we were going to abide by his rules or we weren't going to be here. We're not going to slow up and wait for guys; we're going to keep moving -- and that's a difference from the past.

How will the Lions fare in the NFC North?
Third place
Second place
In the cellar
Division champs

"'Mooch' (Marinelli's predecessor, coach Steve Mariucci) won in San Francisco, but I guess that system wasn't meant for the guys we have. I love 'Mooch.' But I'm a veteran guy, and the older you get the more you understand what you need to do to prepare. With Coach Marinelli he doesn't sugarcoat anything. It's his way or the highway, and that's what we need."

They could also use a quarterback who makes plays, something that hasn't happened in years. Look at the history of the position here. Any idea how many times the Lions produced a Pro Bowl quarterback since Bobby Layne in the 1950s? Try once. Greg Landry in 1972.

Kitna doesn't have to be a Pro Bowler. All he must do is act as a compass for others to follow. I don't know if he does, but I know he can. He helped resurrect the hapless Cincinnati Bengals in 2003, with the club producing a non-losing season for the first time in seven years.

Coaches there were sad to see him leave this year, and Detroit's Martz is so happy with his play he can't quit rhapsodizing about him.

"This is his moment," Martz said. "He's everything I want in a quarterback. I'd ride him into the sunset."

He'd rather ride him to the playoffs. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think there's a chance -- and not just because of Jon Kitna. But because of what Marinelli has accomplished already in a few months, exorcising a sad-sack mentality and replacing it with accountability, precision and --- dare we say it? -- teamwork.

Imagine. Hey, if it can work for Jim Leyland, why not Rod Marinelli? "There's pressure on my shoulders," said Kitna, "but not because of the history or legacy of this team. It's because you're the starting quarterback, and whatever you do everyone is living with you.

"You can say whatever you want, whatever you do you're taking everyone with you -- and I love that. If you don't want that you shouldn't play quarterback. I know there are some guys like that, but that's not me.

"My faith means a lot to me, and I really believe God used my first 10 years in the league to prepare me for this situation. Two years ago I wouldn't have been ready for this situation and what they're asking me to do; not to abuse the freedom they give me and to be the leader they ask me to be. Now I can't wait to go out there and play and finish the process that was started."


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