Stephen McGee finally gets a look

IRVING, Texas -- Nobody expects perfection from quarterback Stephen McGee during the preseason.

But the Dallas Cowboys' front office and coaching staff needs to see poise and production to have proof that McGee is a worthy developmental project. If that doesn't happen, then drafting a quarterback will be a priority next April.

The Hall of Fame Game was a step in the right direction for McGee, who will get the majority of the quarterback snaps during the preseason. His stats certainly weren't spectacular -- 12-of-22 for 116 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions -- but the coaches liked his poise, command and decision-making.

"I'm out here to have fun and compete, make the throws I'm capable of making, make the plays that they give me and just be smart with the football," McGee said.

Nobody doubts whether McGee has the tools to be an NFL quarterback. He has good size (6-3, 222 pounds), arm strength and athletic ability (4.66 40-yard dash). He showed his toughness on a weekly basis while running coach Dennis Franchione's option-oriented offense for the Aggies. He's a smart guy whose Wonderlic score was reportedly among the top 10 in his draft class. He was as impressive in interviews as he was on the field during the scouting combine.

That explains how a quarterback who had a disappointing career at Texas A&M ended up being selected with the first pick of the fourth round in 2009. But there's still a big question about McGee: Can he actually play?

The Cowboys have five preseason games to figure out the answer.

McGee was much too hesitant during his rookie training camp, when veterans would occasionally mock his pocket presence by pretending to pat a football for several seconds. He earned praise during offseason workouts for making quicker decisions.

Now, it's on to the next step.

"You want him to make quicker, better decisions," coach Wade Phillips said.

It's difficult to evaluate McGee during practice, when most of his reps come against a starting defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFC this past season. The DeMarcus Ware-Will Barker matchup basically destroys any chance McGee has on most plays.

That's why this preseason is so important. McGee's rookie preseason was cut short when he sprained his knee on a hit while throwing his first touchdown pass in a Cowboys uniform. The plan is to give him plenty of opportunities this summer, including probably playing the entire game in the preseason finale.

The coaches want to see McGee make smart decisions, but they won't be satisfied to just watch him play it safe.

"All great quarterbacks have the ability to see it and cut the ball loose," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "He just needs an opportunity to do that. His preseason was shortened last year because of an injury, so it's fun to see him get the chance to play.

"This extra preseason game benefits him as much as anybody else on our football team."

That's only true if McGee performs well.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.