By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:01 AM
IRVING, TEXAS - Jon Kitna's face is dented by experience, like he has been through a few lost bouts. A severe commando-style haircut delineates every contour of his bull head. He's not the prettiest NFL quarterback you ever saw, especially his scalp, but then, maybe the Dallas Cowboys needed to be a little less pretty.
At 38, Kitna has no big future with the Cowboys. When their disappointing season is over, he will inevitably return to a backup role. But in the meantime, the 14-year veteran is as responsible as anyone for the fact that the Cowboys are a self-respecting outfit again.
While he isn't the talent that injured Tony Romo is, he is perhaps the better leader, and they have followed him. He took over a team that was 1-7, and has all but rescued it, by finding all kinds of meaning in supposedly meaningless games. Though there is nothing at stake in Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins except last place in the NFC East division, he has them playing like they're still viable.
"You can get a lot of people that want to throw a pity party or feel sorry for themselves," he says. "But the reality is, you are in this position and you are part of what got us here, and nobody is absolved from that. You have three games left, and you signed a contract to play a football season. You have to be a pro, and the guys who handle adversity, handle the times like this the best, tend to elongate their careers."
The Redskins and Cowboys are in similar states, out of playoff contention at 5-8 and 4-9 respectively, because they didn't play well when it counted. Cowboys interim coach Jason Garrett and Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan are sorting out whom they want to keep in their troubled locker rooms, and they'll be watching to see who performs now that it doesn't count - because it's not a bad measure of character. When the goal of the playoffs is gone, who still finds satisfaction in doing good work? Who treats the game as important, even when it's not? Kitna does.
"There's a reason he's been playing in this league as long as he has," Garrett says. "He's the kind of guy you want on your football team."
We assume that because of the size of the paychecks and the crowds, it's easy to go to work every day in the NFL. But as Joe Paterno says, "Professionalism has nothing to do with getting paid for your services."
The fact is, it's hard to bring your best when there's no tangible goal, especially when the job entails physical punishment. If nothing else, the Redskins-Cowboys will be psychologically interesting because it will provide an X-ray of a lot of guys on the field, show exactly who they are. Some guys will sink into personal self-preservation. Some will complain. Some will continue to care.
"Stakes shouldn't matter, score shouldn't matter, our record shouldn't matter," Kitna says. "It shouldn't affect your attitude or intensity, and my thing is, if that's the case then that means you've cheated me somewhere along the line when the stakes weren't that high. You didn't give me everything when nobody was watching."
He was never highly regarded: undrafted out of Central Washington, an NAIA school, he only got a tryout with the Seahawks because he played college ball with coach Dennis Erickson's nephew. He caught on with the team as a free agent in 1997 after he spent a year in the World Football League, because he had good legs, and habits. He took to heart some invaluable advice from Seahawks safety Eugene Robinson: "Be consistent," Robinson told him. "If they can count on you - and that's not just about what you see on Sunday - it will be hard to get rid of you."
has become the guy who is hard to get rid of. He never treats a single practice as meaningless, or a single play as routine. He works, "Every day. Every snap," he says. "You have to make the easy plays easy," he adds. "The routine plays have to be 100 percent. You have to be that consistent, and not just when you're feeling good, or when stakes are high, or you're in a playoff race. That's all the time."
Kitna's constancy was just what the Cowboys needed in the chaos of this season, after the stunning 1-7 start led to the firing of Wade Phillips, and Romo went down. Kitna set an impeccably professional example - he hadn't touched a live game ball in more than two years when Romo suffered a broken clavicle Oct. 25.
Every reserve quarterback in the NFL talks about being ready to step in, but how many actually are? Kitna performed when called, and for that he deserves much of the credit, along with Garrett, for stabilizing the franchise. His record as the starter is 3-4, compared to Romo's 1-5. He has thrown for 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, with a 65.5 completion percentage.
Kitna's outward assets are minimal: he is an excellent runner, if an aging one. Receiver Miles Austin has kidded that he has "Model T wheels. But hey, they get the job done."
Kitna's blunt, matter-of-fact quality has pervaded the entire team. An uncompetitive team suddenly did an about face and even their losses have an honestly hard fought quality. When they went 1-2 against a slugger's row of New Orleans, Indianapolis and Philadelphia, it was no disgrace. They came close to a clean sweep, each of those games decided by three points. If they had pulled it off, they would still be in playoff contention. "We'd all have a merry Christmas," he says.
The season is lost, and the Cowboys can't get it back. Some of the players who participated in the embarrassing start won't return. But Kitna is signed through next year, and if the Cowboys know one thing, it's what they will get from him.
"Played a tough game?" he asks, "Not feeling too good? Oh, we've had injuries, oh, we lost some heartbreakers. We could be sitting here at 7-5. Go out there and practice as hard as you can. And hopefully, if anybody is watching, it affects them in the right way."