<
>

Kitna making sure Lions maintain winning mentality

11/22/2007 - NFL Detroit Lions

The gesture caught New York Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters so off guard that he almost couldn't believe he was in Detroit.

Several of his teammates had just finished praying following their 16-10 win over the Lions when they started ambling toward their locker room. That's when McQuarters heard a gruff voice in the distance calling for the Giants. He whirled to see Lions quarterback Jon Kitna standing before several Lions players. Kitna motioned
for the Giants to join hands with the Lions for one final group prayer.

It wasn't the offer that surprised McQuarters. It was the impression that the Lions were unified behind Kitna that startled him. McQuarters had played a season with Detroit in 2005 and that was enough time to know team chemistry wasn't the Lions' strength.

"I could see the difference Jon was making in that team," McQuarters says. "I figured that if he could be that kind of leader around strangers, he must really be something when he's alone with his own team. You can tell they really needed somebody like him."

What's even more apparent is that the Lions need somebody like Kitna right now. He is in only his second season with Detroit, but that's long enough for him to know how crucial confidence is for a team accustomed to losing. That probably explains why Kitna made the bold statement during the offseason that the Lions -- the same team that had won 24 games between 2001 and the start of this season -- would win 10 games this year. He felt in his heart that Detroit really was moving in a positive direction.

Now that two consecutive defeats have dropped the Lions to 6-4, it's time for Kitna to pull some more motivational magic. Detroit's next game is a Thanksgiving Day affair with the 9-1 Green Bay Packers. The next six weeks include contests with Dallas, San Diego and a rematch with Green Bay. Normally, you'd get better odds on President George W. Bush changing his stance on Iraq than believing Detroit could weather such a schedule, but Kitna remains resolute.

After losing to the Giants, he told reporters, "You can't let a team come into your place and beat you that isn't better than you. This isn't high school football. We're making a playoff run."

"This is all a growth process," Kitna says. "We went 3-13 last year and going through something like that grounded us for this season. We realize this is money-making time. You separate yourself in November and December and we know we can't take anything for granted. The good thing is that we've given ourselves a chance to control our own destiny."

The main reason Kitna remains confident is that he's seen how this Lions team has matured. Before his arrival, "toxic" didn't begin to describe the atmosphere inside the Lions' locker room. Offensive and defensive players feuded. Teammates blamed each other when problems arose. The environment was so bad that backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky says, "You would see teammates walking right past each other without ever saying a word."

Detroit head coach Rod Marinelli deserves plenty of credit for addressing those issues, but the 35-year-old Kitna also has done his part. It's not surprising to see him playing dominoes with defensive backs, cracking jokes with offensive linemen or just talking about life with a rookie. At least 20 teammates also have been so inspired by his strong religious faith that they've explored their own spirituality in recent months and become regulars at Bible study sessions in Kitna's suburban Detroit home.

In fact, Lions wide receiver Roy Williams, who avoids swearing around Kitna out of respect, openly says that the quarterback has changed his life.

But religious faith doesn't solely explain why the Lions are more prepared to deal with their current adversity. Along with providing solid play -- despite throwing three interceptions in that Giants loss, Kitna still ranks eighth in the NFL with a 90.2 passer rating -- he has helped instill a mind-set that wasn't present when his beleaguered predecessor, Joey Harrington, started for Detroit.

"This team has a solid foundation now," says center Dominic Raiola. "If something goes wrong, people aren't pointing fingers. We're standing behind each other. We've already been in some situations where we would've folded in the past, but we're not that kind of team anymore."

This is exactly the kind of impact the Lions had hoped to get from Kitna when he signed as an unrestricted free agent in March 2006. He had the blue-collar toughness that Marinelli craves in players. He had the intellect and the confidence to play for a taskmaster like offensive coordinator Mike Martz. But above all else, Kitna knew a thing or two about perseverance. His resiliency gave him credibility that the Lions previously had lacked at the quarterback position.

When Kitna entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Seattle in 1997, even his wife, Jennifer, thought he might spend one season in the NFL before finding another career. A couple years later, he was a starting quarterback struggling with a bitter relationship with first-year Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren.

Kitna would go weeks without talking to Holmgren, who rode his young quarterback relentlessly, and Kitna actually held a grudge until 2003.
That's when Kitna, then a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, called Holmgren and apologized for the rift.

"I couldn't see back then that he was preparing me for the adversity that comes with playing this position," Kitna says.

Of course, Kitna's tenure in Cincinnati was filled with ups and downs as well. After being named the NFL's comeback player of the year while leading the Bengals to an 8-8 record in 2003, he spent the next two seasons backing up Carson Palmer.

Kitna never complained, though. He was so willing to help Palmer develop during Palmer's first season as a starter that they'd hang out together on off days. Whether they played golf or just walked their dogs, Kitna's plan was to keep Palmer from stressing about being the face of a franchise that had gone 15 straight years without a winning season.

These are the qualities that sold the Lions on Kitna. Though he didn't possess exceptional physical skills -- Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese says Kitna "has to rely on attributes like grit, touch and accuracy because he's not Dan Marino" -- his experience in Cincinnati helped him understand what it takes to change a losing attitude.

"Jon is the kind of person who says things and then backs them up," Marinelli says. "I have a saying: What's more dangerous, a bunch of lions led by a deer or a bunch of deer led by a lion? There are no holes in Jon's character. He is just a natural leader."

Kitna impressed his teammates immediately last season. He was supposed to compete with Josh McCown for the starting job when he first arrived, but Raiola says, "That competition didn't last long. We were all trying to learn a complex offense and Jon had it down from the start."

Though Kitna threw 21 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions in 2006, he wound up setting career highs in completions (372) and passing yards (4,208) in Martz's dynamic offense.

"Mike reshaped my mechanics and got me out of this conservative mode that every other coach had me in," Kitna says. "I've always been an aggressive quarterback and Mike lets me be that. He told me he couldn't coach a quarterback who wasn't aggressive."

Kitna's aggressive nature was apparent during a 20-17 overtime win over Minnesota on Sept. 16. Though he left the game with a concussion in the second quarter, he returned in the fourth quarter to lead Detroit to victory. He was so groggy in the second quarter that teammates say Kitna could barely call a play in the huddle before throwing a 9-yard touchdown pass to Williams. As scary a moment as that was (Kitna later described his return as "a miracle"), it told the Lions something about how far their quarterback would go to win.

The question now is whether Kitna can keep the Lions focused as the regular season winds down. After all, the Lions' bandwagon was starting to fill up after a first half that included two wins over Chicago -- with the first victory featuring an NFL-record 34-point fourth quarter -- and a 44-7 rout of Denver on Nov. 4. Now the skeptics are hovering over Ford Field once again.

Kitna, as you might imagine, isn't part of that pack. He started this year talking about the Lions being able to win 10 games and he's not backing off that now. The only thing that annoys him about that statement is that it was reported as a brash prediction. In actuality, Kitna was making a guest appearance on a local radio show in March when the host asked about the Lions' chances this season. All Kitna said was that he'd be disappointed if the Lions didn't win 10 games and make the playoffs. When asked the same question on the radio show in June, Kitna reiterated his stance.

When Kitna recounted that moment recently, he stressed that people got too caught up in the number.

"Jon was saying that he believed in us," Williams says. "And that meant we had to have his back."

Says Kitna: "If you win 10 games, you usually have a pretty good chance of making the playoffs. And if we can't be disappointed by [missing the postseason], then we have bigger problems around here than we ever imagined."

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.