FRISCO, Texas — Jon Kitna met Dak Prescott roughly three years ago when he was asked to share his story with the Cowboys rookie class. The journey of an undrafted athlete who went on to play for 14 seasons in the NFL is one head coach Jason Garrett wanted his young players to hear.
The next time the two had a chance to sit down and talk was a few months ago on a bus at the Pro Bowl. Prescott spoke of his desire to be elite. Early in this budding relationship, Kitna told Prescott who he reminds him of as a quarterback.
“I had the chance to play with Warren Moon in my second and third year, and I feel like he throws the ball very similar to Warren,” Kitna said of Prescott. “It’s one of the tightest spirals you’ll ever see.”
“I didn’t know what to say,” he remembered. “I’ll take it.
“He played forever. Hall of Famer. He can throw it.”
In his first few months as the Cowboys quarterbacks coach, Kitna stresses his job is not to revamp Prescott. It’s to refine what’s already in place. It’s to give him feedback and find the right drills to work on day in and day out.
Many of those drills have to do with footwork. The right foot is the key.
“All those little things that matter,” Kitna said. “Where your weight is, your weight distribution, how you come out from center, how you land, where your foot is, all that stuff.
“We don’t want to be to the point where you get bogged down thinking about those things. But I think that’s what the offseason is for.”
Kitna points to two influences. The first is Ken Zampese, his quarterbacks coach in Cincinnati.
Zampese is the son Ernie Zampese, a key architect in the “Air Coryell” philosophy that swept the league in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Zampese also worked under head coach Mike Martz in St. Louis, the offensive mind behind The Greatest Show on Turf to open this century.
Kitna produced one of the best seasons of his career in ‘03 with Zampese. He was even better in ‘06 and ‘07 in Detroit. His offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in those two seasons?
“He (Zampese) was really good teaching how to work through progressions and what your footwork looks like,” Kitna said. “Then I got with Mike Martz, and he broke it down to the minutest detail of footwork and how everything gets aligned and where you need to be so you stay in the pocket.
“A quarterback under pressure, (mistakes) can be self-inflicted because you’re not where you’re supposed to be in the middle of the pocket. You’re talking about an inch or two a lot of times. But you’re always tweaking and always trying to work at it.
“I mean, the stuff Mike taught me, like I said, in Year 11 my arm got stronger, my release got faster and my accuracy went up by teaching me how to work my right foot, ad nauseam. So I’m a big believer in it, and we’ve already seen big changes in all of our quarterbacks.”
Prescott was sacked 56 times last season, only one less than his first two seasons combined. He certainly wasn’t at fault in all of those. But that’s one area where he can improve.
The phrase Kitna uses is pocket engineer.
“Watch any good quarterback over time, the ones that last, they know how to create their own space like jump shooters in basketball know how to get their own space so they can get their shot off.
“It’s the same in football. How do I create space so I can be on time and get this throw where I want it to be?”
Kitna believes quarterbacks are built from the feet up, not the arm down. If your arm is in the wrong slot or you’re having difficulty getting through throws, it’s usually because you’re not in the proper alignment.
And it goes back to one foot in particular.
“It’s amazing how what we do is with that right foot,” Kitna said. “It’s a lot of drills, the stuff they do every day.
“It’s not something new. I’m not some guru. It’s just a focus.”
Garrett is encouraged by the relationship he sees building between Kitna and Prescott as the Cowboys enter their second week of organized team activities.
“I think they’ve gotten along really well,” Garrett said. “I think they have a lot of similar qualities if you think about them as people.
“I think it’s good to have a new voice for Dak, someone who again I think believes in the things that we believe in but maybe can present it a little differently. Hopefully that resonates with Dak and the other quarterbacks.”
Prescott likes how active Kitna is a coach, how he keeps pushing.
He calls him a technician at the quarterback spot.
He likes the intensity.
“He has such a strong personality that you kind of wonder,” Prescott said. “I’m excited, but he might have to ease up a little bit.
“But as you get on the field, it’s much more than I could honestly ask for. Just in the first two days and the teaching sessions, he’s going to push me. That’s what I ask for. He’s going to make me a better player, even when he’s got me out there dead tired and I’m drenched.
“Bring it. Keep coming. I want more. That’s how I’ve had success, and I know he’ll lead me to it.”
Kitna evaluated Prescott before he took the job. When he put it next to Prescott’s self-evaluation the two were remarkably similar.
These two are on the same page.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Kitna said. “For him, it’s continuing to define that together and working together.
“It’s really little things.”