Commentary

Tony Romo has room to grow as leader

Franchise quarterback could learn a thing or two from watching Kitna lead team

Updated: December 25, 2010, 12:29 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who spent the early seasons of his career as a proud pupil of Jon Kitna, predicted great success last season for Tony Romo, on one condition: Romo needed to listen to his wise, old backup.

If listening to Kitna can be so valuable, how much can a franchise quarterback benefit from watching the 38-year-old operate?

That's a silver-lining way to look at Romo's lost season. He'll end up spending 10 weeks on the sideline due to a broken left collarbone, providing him plenty of time to study Kitna.

"I think he tried to benefit as much as he could from the experience of watching Jon play," Dallas Cowboys interim coach Jason Garrett said. "I think you benefit the most from playing yourself, but I think he was trying his best to learn from what Jon was doing or has been doing."

Romo hopefully has focused on how Kitna handles himself in the locker room at least as much as on his performance on the field. Kitna's stint as the fill-in starter could be considered a 10-game leadership seminar.

Nobody in their right mind, not even Roy E. Williams, thinks Kitna possesses more talent than Romo. But it's a pretty common belief that Kitna is clearly the superior leader, although nobody at Valley Ranch wants to go on the record with that opinion.

That's not to say Romo is a lousy leader. He just has a lot to learn. And Kitna has a wealth of knowledge on the subject.

The most obvious difference between Kitna and Romo as leaders is the way they interact with teammates. Kitna regularly plays cards with teammates in the locker room and organizes bible study sessions. He's established a strong rapport with the vast majority of teammates, which puts him in position to be critical when appropriate during games or practices without rubbing them the wrong way.

Romo has some close friends on the team, but he doesn't interact with such a wide variety of Cowboys on a regular basis. Some teammates consider him to be aloof at times.

The same has been said of such legendary leaders as Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning. Those are a couple of coach-on-the-field types who might not have been liked but were always respected.

Kitna readily acknowledges that his approach isn't the only one that works. In fact, he doesn't necessarily agree with the thought that his off-field interaction with teammates should be considered a key to his leadership ability.

"You don't have to play cards with people or go to bible study," Kitna said. "Some people don't like the fact I go to bible study. Some people don't like the fact I'm a Christian. Some people don't like the fact that I like to play cards and joke around a lot. But that's who I am every day.

"As long as you're consistent, I think people respond to that. You're never going to please everybody. That's just how it is. That's the nature of being in the locker room full of so many different personalities from so many different cultures and things like that."

Romo, however, still seems to be searching for the leadership style that suits him.

He has admitted many times that he didn't feel comfortable as a leader in his early years as the Cowboys' starter, comparing the situation to a high school sophomore on the varsity team. He didn't do himself any favors with some of the overly philosophical mumbo jumbo that occasionally came out of his mouth, including his infamous postgame news conference after the disastrous 2008 season finale in Philadelphia.

Yet after the Cowboys cut Terrell Owens, a move made in part to eliminate a loud voice that often challenged or contradicted Romo in the locker room, the quarterback made significant strides as a leader. The first big step was simply admitting the importance of leadership to his position.

Romo has the most important attribute of a leader. He's a relentless worker, having never missed a voluntary weightlifting or teaching session during his NFL career. He also has undeniable talent and a track record of winning, albeit not nearly enough in the postseason or during his six starts this season.

There's no reason Romo shouldn't continue to grow as a leader. His backup is willing to go to great lengths to help that process, even when Kitna is the one taking the snaps.

"I had to step up and be the quarterback, and by that you are kind of a leader," Kitna said. "I also don't want to overstep my bounds. I'm the backup quarterback. You have to always keep that in mind and understand that at some point, Tony is coming back. You can't have taken things so far one way that now he has to do things and he has to change it back to the way he would like."

It'd be in the best interests of Romo and the Cowboys if the franchise quarterback considers how he should change to be more like his backup. It can't hurt that Romo has been able to watch a way that works during his otherwise painful season.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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