IRVING, Texas -- Jon Kitna has cracked the code. He's figured out the secret to the success of Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, his most heralded predecessors as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
Throw to No. 88.
Rookie receiver Dez Bryant is the latest to slip into that jersey and so far he's lived up to Jerry Jones' prediction that he'd be a worthy heir to Drew Pearson and Michael Irvin. While Bryant showed flashes of his dazzling skills early this season when Tony Romo was healthy, Bryant has become a bigger part of the offense since Kitna took over for the injured Romo.
In four games, Bryant has 23 catches for 328 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers are not only the best on the team during that span, they are among the best in the NFL.
"He's just a guy you can trust," Kitna said.
Against the Giants last weekend, Bryant caught only three passes but turned them into 104 yards. They included a 45-yarder that Kitna thought he'd overthrown and a 46-yard gain on a short toss.
Every ball thrown his way is a highlight waiting to happen.
Bryant can leap high for the ball and is big enough to reach over most cornerbacks. He's got the speed to run away from people -- check out his 62- and 93-yard punt returns for touchdowns -- and the size, strength and tenacity to take on defenders of any size.
"It's almost as if the people around him are irrelevant," Kitna said. "His goal is to get to the goal line, and if you're in the way, you're in the way. ... He's just so violent. It makes such a difference. Like a Walter Payton mentality."
For the season, Bryant is second among rookie receivers in yards (539) and catches (41), and tied for second in touchdown grabs (five).
Imagine how much better he'd be doing if he hadn't missed the entire preseason with an ankle problem. Or if he'd played more than a few games his final season in college.
Better still, wait to see how much better he gets as long as Kitna remains the quarterback.
Their on-field relationship actually is an extension of the off-field bond they've developed. It started at the end of training camp, when Kitna made a point of talking to Bryant about the finer points of his game. He wanted to understand what the kid was thinking, what plays he felt comfortable running, whether he liked passes high or low, with arc or without.
It's part of the getting-acquainted process that would be great for the starting quarterback to do, but he can't always spend enough time with each of his receivers. As the backup, Kitna took it upon himself to get to know Bryant, then pass along to Romo the most pertinent information.
Kitna doesn't like to call it being a mentor. He describes it as "just kind of walking with him in the early stages of his career." He did the same thing years ago as a backup in Cincinnati with Chad Ochocinco.
"I wasn't starting and neither was Chad, so we just kind of spent a lot of time talking about what quarterbacks see and how quarterbacks gain trust in receivers," Kitna said.
Why do those things matter? Kitna compared it to a marriage.
"It's like your wife telling you what really makes her happy, what works for her," he said. "I mean, you can buy roses for your wife all you want, but if that's not what gets her going, then it's really futile. Although it's a good attempt, it's futile. So when she tells you, 'I really like it when you just offer to massage my feet or you do the dishes.' That's finding out what your wife likes. It's kind of the same thing for a receiver with a quarterback."
Bryant has made headlines for everything from his mother's lifestyle to how much he's spent on dinner. This past weekend, there was a story about him losing a $50,000 diamond earring on the field during the game against the Giants; a security guard returned it.
But those things obscure what jumps out most -- the enthusiasm, passion and flat-out talent he has as a football player.
"He's a lot of fun to be around," Kitna said. "It's a simple game to him. 'Just throw me the ball.' But if we can all be a little closer to the same page in how we're thinking about things and running things, then he gets to have the ball thrown to him more."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press