Jon Kitna has a simple way to explain his transformation from one-time caretaker/bench-warming quarterback to prominent starter.
He feels free.
Free to trust his throwing arm and overall quarterbacking skills. Free to trust his instincts and make what he believes is the right decision on each play. Free to trust that his coaches have complete faith in him and that he doesn't have to constantly look over his shoulder.
Arriving in Detroit in 2006, after spending the first nine seasons of his NFL career in Seattle and Cincinnati, provided Kitna with a figurative key to unlock the kind of player he always knew he could become.
"It felt like the chains came off," he said. "(Being told previously), 'Don't make a mistake,' and all that stuff, I just think you miss big plays when you're playing like that."
Mike Martz, the Lions' aggressive-minded offensive coordinator, doesn't allow Kitna or any other quarterback to play like that. Consequently, for nearly a season and a half, Kitna has made plenty of big plays.
Martz's influence is the primary reason that, entering Detroit's Week 8 NFC North showdown against Chicago, Kitna ranks fifth in the league in passing yards (1,480) and touchdown passes (eight, tied with Carolina's Jake Delhomme), and ninth with a passer rating of 93.9 in helping the Lions to a 4-2 start. His completion percentage of 69.5 puts him third behind New England's Tom Brady (73.8) and Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia (70.4).
And it was Martz's coaching that helped Kitna enjoy a breakout season in 2006, when he ranked fourth in the NFL with a career-high 4,208 passing yards. He also set Lions with career bests for pass attempts (596) and completions (372).
For Kitna, the turning point came during a quarterbacks meeting last year when Martz uttered the following: "I can't coach caution. If you're cautious, I can't coach you."
"He holds everybody on offense accountable for what they're supposed to do," Kitna said. "So he calls a play and if we get the coverage we're looking for, he says, 'Your job is not to try to figure out whether that receiver will win (his battle against a defensive back). That's his job to win. You just throw the ball.'
"I just love being coached like that because that just gives you much more confidence in what you're doing and what you're seeing instead of (wondering), 'Did (the receiver) get to 20 yards or did he only get to 17? And if he only got to 17, well, then, you can't throw it.' I just think that's too hard.
"I've never heard Coach Martz say, 'You can't do that. We're not going to call that play because you can't make that throw.' All he does is focus on the positives and builds me up. When I make mistakes, he gets on me and he's very hard on me, but he's everything I've ever hoped for in a coach -- somebody who believes in me, who isn't worried about who's going to be the quarterback next year or anything like that. It's just, 'Hey, you're my guy and let's go.'"
Martz arrived at that conclusion when he first met Kitna last year. When he was offensive coordinator and, later, head coach, of the St. Louis Rams, Martz had watched Kitna play for NFC West rival Seattle, where Kitna spent his first four NFL seasons. Martz also studied videotape from Kitna's five years in Cincinnati. What first struck Martz about Kitna was his unbridled enthusiasm and passion for football.
"I just loved the way he played the game, his attitude ... very, very competitive," Martz said. "He would move around and make some unbelievable plays and throws. I just felt like that was at the core of what we wanted -- a real tough competitor, a high-energy guy, a smart guy who was accurate. The energy just jumps off the tape at you."
The other quality that stood out was Kitna's ability to make "unusual" throws under duress, either while off balance or being hit. Martz especially loved the way Kitna kept his eyes down the field and threw with accuracy.
"I didn't understand why he hadn't been a (regular) starter all those years in the league," Martz said. "He just looked like somebody that would fit us perfectly. Jon's an aggressive player, he has great confidence in his ability to put the ball where he wants to, and that's exactly what we're looking for.
"We're such a timing-oriented passing game, and if he has to delay for even just a slight moment and think about whether he should make that throw, he's not going to make it or it's going to be a poor throw. So you've got to have a guy that's very aggressive and confident to get that ball out on time and throw it to a spot where you don't see anybody there yet. And he excels at that."
In Martz's system, everything is built on mutual trust between the quarterback and his receivers. There's even a sign in the room where the Lions' receivers meet: "Be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there and don't ever fool the quarterback."
"I feel blessed," Kitna said. "I mean, the group I had in Cincinnati was really good, but it was just Chad (Johnson) and Peter (Warrick) and Chad was so good it made everybody better. But one through five on this team are just really dynamic and any one of them can have a big game on any given Sunday. We feel like every one of them can make plays. For me as a quarterback you just kind of dream to have these kinds of weapons at your disposal, and it's a reality."
Another reality in the Lions' offense is that Kitna takes a great deal of hits. He was sacked an NFL-high 63 times last year and has been sacked a league-leading 28 times this season. Some of the reason has been poor pass protection, although that is partly due to Martz's preference to use five blockers in order to have a maximum number of pass-catchers running routes. Another factor is Martz's scheme, which often calls for the quarterback to take deeper drops and wait for patterns to develop. And Kitna has no hesitation about waiting, even when pass-rushers are bearing down on him.
Kitna never missed a snap in 2006, but had a frightening experience in a Week 2 game against Minnesota when he left the game in the second quarter with a concussion and, after medical clearance, returned in the fourth to lead the Lions to a 20-17 victory in overtime.
Although he missed half the game, Kitna still completed 22 of 33 passes for 245 yards. But even more impressive was what he did on the game-winning drive. He caught a batted pass and ran straight before hurling into the air and taking a hit at the end of a nine-yard gain to the Minnesota 41-yard line. On third-and-two, he ran for six more yards to set up Jason Hanson's 37-yard field goal to win the game.
"I've seen a lot in this league, but that was special," coach Rod Marinelli said. "(Detroit) is a tough town, and they got a leader on this football team that's tough."
"As far as (returning from) the concussion goes, to me it was a miracle," Kitna said. "I've had concussions in the past. My (previous) one was in 2000, and every time that I had one, I couldn't remember things. And this one was even worse, where I couldn't even remember that we played the week before. I didn't know anything about what had just happened. I was just absolutely out of it.
"Then by halftime things started to clear up and then in the third quarter I said, 'Let me just stand on the sidelines and see if I can get these play calls (by listening to them through an earpiece) and then play the game in my mind.' By the end of the third quarter, I was playing it at a hundred percent mentally and I had no symptoms at all. I had no headache, no nausea, no sensitivity to light, nothing like that."
In March, Kitna said during a radio interview that he would be disappointed if the Lions didn't win at least 10 games this season. In June, while appearing on the same show, he reiterated his stance, adding he believed they could actually win more than 10 games.
"I've had guys respond so positively over that," Kitna said. "We believe we have a chance to do that, and really, if you think about it, every team in this league that doesn't win 10 games is ultimately disappointed because usually 10 games are what get you into the playoffs."
The Lions can take another major step on that road when they play their second game against the Bears at Soldier Field. A difference-making moment in the first game was when Kitna, after throwing an interception in the end zone in each of the Lions' first three games, received the green light from Martz to attempt another such pass from the Chicago 15. This time, against a Cover Two defense, he zipped a pass to Troy Walters in the back of the end zone to give Detroit a 24-20 lead on the way to a 37-27 victory.
"We have a big game this week, but at the same time it's not a game that's going to define us and define our season," Kitna said. "We have to go up there, we have to try and win on the road. We have to execute better on the road than we have the last two times (losses at Philadelphia and Washington by a combined score of 90-24).
"The Bears are going to be playing with three, maybe four starters on defense that they didn't have the last time we played them. They're the defending NFC champions. They played good last week in pulling out a win (against the Eagles). We've got our work cut out for us, but we've just got to go out there and do it."
And for Kitna, it's all about having the freedom to get it done.