OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Jon Kitna unfolded a piece of paper detailing that day’s practice plan because he thought it was a good way to illustrate why the former Dallas quarterback was back in the NFL with the Cowboys after coaching high school football for seven years.
Dak Prescott‘s new position coach never stopped communicating with Jason Garrett, who replaced the fired Wade Phillips as head coach while Kitna was starting for an injured Tony Romo halfway through a lost season in 2010. Now Kitna is on the staff of a man he calls a mentor — even though Garrett is only seven years older.
“Like, literally, I could bring one of my coaches here from the last seven years and I could hand them this, and they’d know exactly what this is and how it works and what we’re doing,” Kitna said as he held out the paper. “He gave me all that stuff.”
When Garrett and the Cowboys were dealing with another Romo injury and needed an emergency backup for a 2013 regular-season finale with a playoff berth on the line, Kitna traveled from Washington state, where he was coaching his high school alma mater, to wear the headset for one Sunday.
A year later, Kitna returned to Texas as coach at Waxahachie High School, just south of Dallas. After three years there, he coached at a private school in Arizona before the Cowboys promoted Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator after just one year as QB coach.
Re-enter Kitna, whose playing career overlapped with Garrett’s for almost a decade — although they were never teammates — before Garrett became his offensive coordinator in Dallas.
“At that time, I always said to myself at some point he is going to stop playing,” Garrett said. “At some point we got to get him back on board. He’s got great knowledge of the game. He’s got a great way to connect with people. The way he interacts with players. The way he interacts with coaches.”
Garrett’s been known to say many of the same things about Prescott after two NFC East titles in three seasons, along with NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 when he led Dallas to a franchise-record 11-game winning streak.
Kitna is coming along at an important time, the 46-year-old looking like the perfect complement for someone exactly 20 years younger.
Viewed by the front office as the face of the franchise for the next decade and perhaps beyond, Prescott seeks his first big contract after significantly outplaying his fourth-round rookie deal. The Cowboys believe they have the pieces to end a nearly 25-year Super Bowl drought.
Prescott keeps coming back to footwork when asked how he thinks Kitna is going to make him better.
“He does a great job of staying on top of us every practice, going in the film room and making sure we touch up on it as well,” Prescott said. “I’m seeing the improvement. It feels great.”
When he finally decided to make the jump, Kitna went from coaching teenagers to a two-time Pro Bowler looking for answers on how to get past the divisional playoffs after losing in that round twice.
The difference wasn’t lost on a former player who never made the Pro Bowl, had a losing record (54-70), lost both his playoff starts and threw almost as many interceptions (165) as touchdowns (169). A career that spanned 14 seasons also included stops in Seattle, Cincinnati and Detroit.
“The thing I had to get over was, and it was quick, ‘I have something to offer,’” Kitna said, chuckling at the memory of showing up with Garrett’s staff at the Pro Bowl before the Cowboys had announced his hiring, feeling as if “the staff doesn’t even know who you are.”
“Especially for me, I’m a severe introvert. I set the scale for it. I just had to get over it. And Dak’s been great. I do have not only something to offer. I think I have a lot to offer. And I think we’re growing together.”
Kitna has another duty in helping the Cowboys settle on Prescott’s backup. Cooper Rush had the job the past two seasons and appears in line for a third, particularly after Mike White struggled in the preseason opener at San Francisco last weekend.
Rush and White were on the roster last season, but the Cowboys might not have the luxury of keeping three quarterbacks this season. This is where Kitna’s voice becomes important again.
“At the end of the day, this is Dak’s team and we need to make sure that he’s ready to go come Week 1,” White said. “I think (Kitna) does a great job of spending time with me and Coop as well, whether it was extra meeting times on the field after practice, before practice. He’s really dialed in with it all.”
During his three years as a high school coach in Texas, Kitna usually took at least a day each season to bring his staff to a Cowboys practice. His last two years of that were Prescott’s first two seasons in the NFL. For Kitna, the familiarity ran deeper than that.
“I don’t know that I ever stopped coaching high school kids like I was in the NFL,” Kitna said. “My high school kids would come here right now and go, ‘Oh, that’s that play. That’s that play. That’s that play.’ We didn’t have quite the volume. But we had heavy volume.
“At the end of the day, you have to be able to teach what you have up here. It’s not OK to just have knowledge. You have to be able to give knowledge. I think that’s the same way as high school or here.”