Former Lions quarterbacks Moore, Kitna guiding high-powered Cowboys attack
Allen Park — Detroit Lions football in this century is not exactly known for its excellence.
But coach Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys apparently liked some things from what they saw.
The coach of the iconic Cowboys have mined the last couple decades of Lions' lore for coaching acumen, as his staff is littered with Detroit dignitaries.
There’s defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who coached the Lions for three infamous seasons, which were helmed by quarterback Jon Kitna, now quarterbacks coach in Dallas. There’s also former Lions backup quarterback Kellen Moore, a rising offensive coordinator under Garrett, along with Kyle Valero, who served as an offensive assistant under Jim Schwartz and now helps with wide receivers in Dallas.
Led by Moore, the three offensive assistants have the Cowboys humming along, racking up a league-best 437.4 yards per game.
The Lions (3-5-1), meanwhile, are still steeped in mediocrity as Sunday's home game against the Cowboys (5-4) is just another cursory check mark of a sad season.
Forever the face of Boise State football, Moore backed up Matthew Stafford for three seasons in Detroit, though he never played a regular season down for the Lions.
Earlier this season, Stafford said he caught some of a Dallas game against Green Bay while the Lions were on a bye week.
He said he noticed some creativity from his former understudy that seemed familiar.
“He was obviously a really smart kid, creative kid, and he just had that quality about him — good leader, and you could tell he was going to be able to stand up in front of a room and put a game plan together,” Stafford said. “Still looks super young, but he’s doing a great job.”
Moore was cut after training camp in 2015, landing in Dallas with Garrett that season for his three career games and two career starts.
Moore, also 31 and five months younger than Stafford, broke his leg in training camp in 2016, which could have been another chance to start after Tony Romo went down. Instead, it was Dak Prescott who jumped in.
Last year, after the Cowboys released Moore in 2017, he stayed on the sidelines, going straight from player to coach like Garrett did in 2005, becoming Prescott’s quarterbacks coach.
This year, he replaced Scott Linehan — another former Lions coach, serving as offensive coordinator during Schwartz’s tenure — and has thrown new twists to revamp the Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper threesome.
Under Linehan, the Dallas offense was criticized for their lack of pre-snap motion, a staple of much of the rest of the NFL.
Moore now uses plenty of pre-snap motion and implemented what Lions coach Matt Patricia called a “muddle huddle,” which allows the offense to substitute players without the official standing over the ball.
“The way that they do it, the personnel comes on and off in a very difficult way to try to match or try to really realize what they’re doing,” Patricia said. “Then they line up quick and for a lot of the plays they don’t necessarily snap the ball right away. They will use some motions or some identifiers to try to get a key to what the defense is doing, but they are out of the huddle very quickly, which puts a lot of stress on the defense.”
For Kitna, the road to Big D wasn’t as immediate after his NFL playing career.
He landed in Detroit with Marinelli and spent two seasons as a full-time starter, going 10-22 to start.
Then came 2008.
During the fourth game of the season, Kitna injured his back and was later placed on injured reserve. Among the horrors of the 0-16 campaign under Marinelli was a dispute by Kitna about the severity of his injury. Kitna claimed he could’ve returned, while the team went with Dan Orlovsky and later Daunte Culpepper as the starters instead.
Kitna then moved on to Dallas and returned to the field in 2010, starting nine games for an injured Romo.
After retiring in 2011 at age 39 after 15 years in the league, Kitna coached in the high school ranks, going from Washington to Texas while keeping contact with Garrett along the way.
“He used to bring his staff out to visit us in the offseason and spend some time together,” Garrett said. “He’s been someone that I’ve been close to, and we had the opportunity to bring him on board and we wanted to do so.”
The moves have paid off for the Cowboys, who have an inside track for the NFC East title.
Marinelli’s defense has been solid in his six years as coordinator, while Valero has receivers such as Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb playing at a high level.
Who would’ve figured that much of the braintrust and the quarterbacks from such a forgettable era of Lions football would someday contribute to stability, innovation and success?
“They were kind of guys that you want to target to bring on your staff once you get into coaching,” Garrett said of Kitna and Moore. “Those guys have helped the quarterbacks really play at a very high level, and I think they’re working well together.
"They’re a really positive impact on our offense and on our team.”
Lions at Cowboys
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field
TV/radio: Fox/760 AM
Records: Lions 3-5-1, Cowboys 5-4
Line: Cowboys by 6.5
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.