ARLINGTON, Texas – From the day he was drafted, Stephen McGee understood the pecking order among Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks. Tony Romo was the starter, Jon Kitna the backup. His role was to be seen and not heard, to absorb as much as he could without getting in the way.
No problem, McGee figured. He had a lot to learn anyway.
A former option quarterback at Texas A&M, McGee immersed himself in learning the pro game. He rented a house two stop signs from team headquarters and spent so much time at the facility that Kitna said McGee should pay rent there, too.
As much as everyone praised his effort, the Cowboys weren't all that interested in seeing what they had in their second-year third-stringer no matter how much of a mess this season had become. Dallas went into last weekend's game against Arizona with neither team having a shot at the playoffs and interim coach Jason Garrett said he would only use McGee if Kitna got hurt.
Well, that's exactly what happened.
McGee played the entire second half and took Dallas from 11 points down to leading by two in the final minutes. He didn't have any turnovers and made a terrific throw to Miles Austin for the go-ahead touchdown. It was the kind of performance worthy of an encore, yet Garrett is sticking with the original pecking order.
Kitna will start the finale Sunday against Philadelphia if a strained abdominal muscle stops hurting. He said Wednesday he hopes to practice Thursday or Friday.
"Right now, there's no pain in it just standing here," Kitna said. "But certain movements make it feel like there's a knife in your side. I've got to be able to throw the football. I've got to be able to make all the throws. ... This is one of those injuries that can kind of linger for three or four days and then it can just be gone. Hopefully that'll be the case."
McGee is getting ready to make his first career start just in case.
He ran the first team in practice Wednesday, a great opportunity in itself. He had only three practice series with the starters before being sent out for his debut Saturday night against the Cardinals. He'd taken a few snaps from center Andre Gurode, but had never thrown to Austin or Jason Witten as Kitna's backup the last nine weeks.
"I had fun going out there in practice today, competing, getting guys in and out of the huddle," McGee said. "I love that. I love playing football, being around the game. This is my dream job, playing quarterback in the NFL, especially for the Dallas Cowboys. I'm having a blast and just continuing to get better this week and making strides toward Sunday."
Against Arizona, McGee went 11 of 17 for 111 yards with a touchdown. He also ran four times for 19 yards.
"I was encouraged with how Stephen did," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "I must say, I was pretty impressed to have McGee come in, having not played at all, under those circumstances, and see our team keep going and competing. That's pretty impressive."
McGee grew up in the Central Texas town of Burnet, throwing passes to Bengals rookie Jordan Shipley on a team coached by Shipley's dad. They played for state titles as juniors and seniors.
At Texas A&M, McGee left higher on the school's career list for yards rushing by a quarterback (third) than for yards passing (fourth). He hardly played as a senior, though, getting hurt and then unable to get his job back. Still, Dallas drafted him in the fourth round. He was inactive all of last season and remained on the sideline this season until Kitna went down Saturday.
McGee's immediate concern was making sure he took the first snap cleanly. Garrett's advice: "It's just like Burnet, Texas. Just go play."
"He came into a difficult situation last week and played well," Kitna said. "This week isn't going to be any easier because he got a half of a game in last week. It's a learning process in this league to play any position, certainly to play quarterback. ... Regardless of how this week ends up, he's on the right track to be a good player in this league for a long time."
The team's reluctance to give him a shot didn't affect McGee's enthusiasm. A devout Christian, he believes his patience will be rewarded.
Perhaps as soon as this weekend.
"I've never questioned coaches or decisions that are out of my control," McGee said. "Every chance you do get is a huge opportunity. You send that video out to the whole league. Everybody sees it, everybody takes notice. It's basically a resume for the NFL. It's definitely an opportunity that if I do get, I want to make the most of and show people what I can do."