ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The quarterback was once 12th string in college. Yes, 12th. And it wasn't like Jon Kitna went to Southern California. Try Central Washington University of the NAIA. Even then he was so far down the depth chart that when the QBs lined up to practice there were only 11 footballs. He had to borrow one just to work out.
No wonder he is the undisputed leader of the Detroit Lions.
It's a team, after all, that boasts a coach (Rod Marinelli) who had to wait until he was 57 years old to get a shot at a head job, has a receiver (Mike Furrey) who once slept in his car while trying out for the St. Louis Rams and a starting linebacker (Paris Lenon) who used to be a postman (Lynchburg, Va., 24504).
The Lions have been the worst franchise in football for years, mostly because of blown draft picks. And what happens when top-10 picks go bust (Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams) is you sort through the scrap heap for replacements.
Well, the scrap heap is 2-0 and visiting the reeling, winless Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. This is a surprise to many. But not Kitna, the ever-positive, bold-talking, miracle-believing quarterback who, after the 12th string, 10 years and three teams (not counting NFL Europe) is finally showing everyone what he always proclaimed – he can be a franchise quarterback.
This is the Kitna, after all, who last year told Nicholas Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press that as a Lion he'd play in a Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl. "It's going to happen," he said. "No question."
And the Kitna who called his dramatic return Sunday against Minnesota from an early game concussion a "miracle."
Not to mention the Kitna who, despite a three-win season last year, boldly noted last spring on WDFN Radio in Detroit that the Lions were on the brink of something big.
"I'll keep to myself what I think we actually will win," he said, according to the Associated Press. "But it's more than 10 games."
Well, two down, nine (or more) to go. Don't laugh. And, considering the long odds he's already overcome through the power of positive thinking and goal verbalization, don't expect Jon Kitna to stop speaking his heart.
"First and foremost, I did not make a prediction," he said Wednesday. "Check the audio, what I said was, 'It will be a disappointment for us not to win 10 games.' Every team should be disappointed if (it doesn't) win 10 games."
Well, we tried to check into it and couldn't get the audio, but the AP isn't often wrong. (An alert reader from Detroit sent us a link of the interview. The AP had it right. You can listen yourself. Kitna makes the prediction at just after the 2:00 mark.)
Not that it matters.
The point is Kitna isn't backing down from his belief that the Lions can be a playoff team. And after waiting so long to be the undeniable leader of an NFL team, he is going to push it as far as he possibly can.
"I know what kind of players we have in this locker room," Kitna said. "I know what kind of toughness, what kind of leadership we are getting from our head coach on down. The fact (of) being in this system for a second year, the belief that the guys have in each other in this locker room, the unselfishness, the team camaraderie, all of those things."
And more important, what his teammates heard was a confident leader demanding results at a franchise that has averaged just four victories a season since 2001 and has won just a single playoff game since 1957.
"That's what you want all your players to think," Furrey said. "In the past here, everybody was saying, 'Can we win three or four games?' But if you want to make the playoffs you need to win 10 games. If you have your captain saying that, it feeds down to other players (who say) 'We can possibly do that. Let's do that. Why not?' "
"Why not?" has been Kitna's career motto. If he was any other way, he'd be teaching high school math and coaching the game, not still playing it. That was the back-up plan when he didn't get a sniff from the NFL coming out of Central Washington, where he had eventually risen to starter and won a national title. Fortunately, a teammate was Dennis Erickson's nephew. As a favor, the then Seattle Seahawks coach set up a pro day for the two players.
Not a single scout showed up. Erickson worked them out anyway, was stunned by Kitna's potential and signed him immediately.
But over the next decade, it was a series of starts and stops. Every time Kitna got an opportunity as a starter (and generally performed very well) he was soon replaced by a higher-profile player, most famously Carson Palmer in Cincinnati.
Finally in the spring of 2006, he came to Detroit where there was no competition. The job, at last, was his.
And then he went 3-13.
"It wasn't as bad as that," Kitna said. "We were a better football team than that, we just needed to learn how to win. We were decimated with injuries last year."
Kitna believes that. Just as he believes the 10-win talk or how the franchise is no longer dysfunctional because Marinelli "swept out" all the problems or how anything is possible for Lions.
Essentially, he believes in miracles. You have to when you've been 12th string on a team with only 11 footballs.
- Jon Kitna