Part Quarterback, Part Teacher

SAN ANTONIO - For the second time in his career, Kitna is being asked to back up — and to a degree, to mentor — a younger quarterback listed ahead of him on the depth chart.

The first time around, he helped shepherd Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer in his early years with the Bengals. Now, he's filling a similar role with the Cowboys and starter Tony Romo.

While with the Detroit Lions, Kitna was well aware of what Romo went through last season in Dallas. When the Cowboys missed out on the playoffs last year, many pointed the finger of blame at Romo. His critics had varied reasons, ranging from his sometimes-tenuous relationship with then-teammate Terrell Owens to his much-publicized relationship with Jessica Simpson, but Kitna said that considering the circumstances, Romo played better last season than many give him credit for.

"He went through the injury problems, you know, with the hand, and that's tough to handle," Kitna said, "but he was a warrior, went out there and played, never complained about it, never talked about it, never used it as an excuse. But that's a big deal. Any time you have one of your digits on your throwing hand that's injured, that's a hard thing to adjust to, so Tony's going to be just fine."

When he was Palmer's teammate in Cincinnati, Kitna served as something of a stabilizing force for the former Heisman Trophy winner. Now, he said, he hopes he can have a somewhat similar effect on Romo.

"What I try to be for guys, like I was for Carson, is kind of a shield, to kind of deflect some of the things off of him," he said. "Hopefully I can do that (for Romo)."

Kitna has a reputation as a patient, sometimes conservative field general, who relies on his wits and precise passing when effectively leading an offense. That style presents a stark contrast to that of Romo, whose free-wheeling playground style has made him a favorite on SportsCenter, but also has been blamed for some costly mistakes over his brief tenure as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. Kitna said he sees a little of his younger self in Romo, and thinks that with more maturity as a starter, Romo also could well rein in his risk-taking tendencies.

"I don't think anyone coaches him to do what he does," Kitna said. "That's just natural ability taking over, a playmaking aspect of things. You know, early on in my career, I was kind of the same way — that's how I came out of college.

"But I think the more you mature in a system, and start to understand where that third of fourth receiver is, the less you see of those things, and you kind of settle into that pocket. I think you saw some of that with him last year, before he got hurt."

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