ALLEN PARK - Very slowly and without much fanfare, something noteworthy is taking place in the Lions locker room in Allen Park. In front of the locker where No. 3 used to reside, a leader is emerging and his teammates are following, sometimes without even knowing it.
Jon Kitna is becoming the leader that the Lions have been searching for and hoping for to give the offensive side of the football the emotion and passion that they have lacked since the release of former starter Charlie Batch.
Kitna isn't a rah-rah kind of guy, he isn't a big talker. He appears to be a 'thinker', the kind of guy who carefully measures his comments about his teammates and looks to shield them from criticism.
He's learning the right buttons to push, much like the coaching staff and he's using them sparingly early on. He appears to be laying the groundwork for Sundays this fall, when he'll have to push those buttons to get his teammates to rise to the occasions when the game is on the line.
The nine-year NFL veteran has been around the block a few times, so he knows how to go about it. After departing Seattle, where he signed on as an undrafted free agent of Central Washington, he moved to Cincinnati, a team that had little success and had watched a high profile draft pick, Oregon's Akili Smith flame out, leaving them with little hope at the quarterback position.
Kitna stablizd the team, built relationships with his teammates including receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzah. Cincinnati posted their first .500 season in 13 years and was selected as the NFL's comeback player of the year, but that offseason, the Bengals drafted University of Southern California Heisman trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer and Kitna knew his time in Cincinnati was limited.
Now, he comes to Detroit, under nearly identical circumstances. A high profile quarterback from Oregon, Joey Harrington, flamed out in Detroit. There was little hope for the position until Kitna signed ahead of youngster Josh McCown.
The veteran talked about what his experience has been like under head coach Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz while also commenting on some of his high profile teammates.
"I've been places were you have a fifteen play period, you might have five or six new plays go in," said Kitna in reference to the volume of Mike Martz's playbook, "but the other nine, you could pretty much relax because you've been running them for years, that's not the case here.
"Your thinking cap is always on and the more we learn them, the faster we'll play."
Added Kitna, "Of all the positions on offense, [wide reciever] is the most demanding position. This coach (Martz) demands perfection out of them. There's no nineteen yards when its a twenty yard route. He always says 'be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there.' He's very demanding on them, but they're coming along great. They've been just working their butts off. It's a different style than anything you've been associated with so there's some growing pains, but the attitude has been great."
Kitna said despite all the talk of the grievance that was filed against the coaching staff, the working atmosphere has been great.
"The greatest thing about everything we do here is that it feels like the players and the coaches are in this together," said Kitna, "Coach Marinelli doesn't let anything go by the wayside. If there's a team issue -- something that's going to be a problem for the team in the locker room or on the field -- he deals with it on the field. He doesn't deal with it as a little pocket of individuals, he deals with it as a team. That's a great thing, that's what men do. They handle problems collectively."
The veteran tackled the tough, physical nature of the early OTAs and the tempo that's being established.
"That the thing that's being established right now, they're going to be hard on us," said Kitna, "Things are going to be tougher than we're used to, but the fact of the matter is Coach Marinelli, Coach Martz, and Donnie [Henderson] come from teams that have been highly, highly successful so why wouldn't you want to buy into that?"
What about the long drought for the long suffering Lions fans who haven't seen a winner in years.
"I come from Cincinnati. When I showed up there in '99 they hadn't had a winning season since '90. They had gone through a lot of down years, the thing about it is, that's what happened here last year. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you're ready to really make changes to do the things that are necessary. You can try to change your personnel a little bit but when you're trying to change an attitude, that's something totally different.
"That's what's happening now is the attitude is what's being changed, the way things are being done and its very encouraging."
Lions fans should be encouraged that there is someone in the locker room leading the way for his teammates to go. Someone who is urging them to buy into the system, who takes accountability for the success of the offensive unit and who will be demanding, yet supportive on the field, but most importantly, a guy who has shown he can make plays on the football field.
This guy wears No. 8