Stephen McGee proves his worth

PHILADELPHIA -- Young quarterback Stephen McGee has been a rattled mess around Valley Ranch recently.

Just not for the reasons you might think.

McGee, who spent all week studying the Philadelphia Eagles' defense in anticipation of his first NFL start, respected but didn't fear the Dallas Cowboys' foe in their season finale. He's been running scared from a man with a reputation for being a Cowboys quarterback's best friend.

To make a long story short, McGee made Jason Witten mad during his rookie offseason by poking fun at the perennial Pro Bowl tight end's bald spot. And McGee recently drew the wrath of Witten again by disclosing the tight end's revenge -- having the quarterback's car surrounded with piles of sand and manure in the parking lot at the team's facility -- during a light-hearted interview with a local website.

"I've been riding his tail," Witten said after Sunday's 14-13 comeback win over the Eagles. "He's been scared to death. He's been making sure his keys were hidden and the whole deal."

McGee can relax now. All is forgiven after he earned Witten's respect with the poise and toughness he displayed while leading comebacks the last two weeks of the season.

Nobody is claiming that McGee is ready to challenge Tony Romo for the starting job after watching the second-year quarterback play six quarters. Heck, he's not even ready to bump 38-year-old backup Jon Kitna off the roster quite yet.

But a lot of people inside the organization are impressed that McGee played his best with the game on the line in his first two regular-season appearances. He capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive with a pretty 37-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin with 1:47 remaining against the Arizona Cardinals, although the Cowboys found a way to lose that game.
McGee engineered a nine-play, 54-yard drive, which he finished with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Witten with 59 seconds remaining, to allow the Cowboys to finish a disappointing season with a win over Philadelphia.

"He's got something about him. He really does," Witten said. "Obviously, there's areas that he can improve on, just like anybody at quarterback that's developing. But there's some things that when you go and evaluate a quarterback on, there's not a measuring stick, and that's toughness and poise and determination. He's done it two weeks in a row."

Added Kitna, whose oblique injury opened the door for McGee: "All I know is this: People that lead scoring drives late in the fourth quarter to put yourselves ahead, that's pretty good. He's done it two weeks in a row. That's a good start for him."

Never mind that the Eagles rested several starters in preparation for the playoffs. Ignore for a moment that McGee's passing numbers in his first NFL start (11-of-27 for 127 yards) were pretty unsightly. The kid showed the Cowboys something.

McGee gets graded on a curve. He wasn't expected to execute as well as Romo or Kitna. The question was whether the 2009 fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M was worthy of a continued investment.

The answer is yes.

"He did enough to show he is worth spending some extra coaching time," said owner/general manager Jerry Jones, who has always been enamored with McGee's physical tools and intelligence. "We saw enough there."

Jason Garrett, who will probably be appointed the Cowboys' full-time head coach within a week, praised McGee for how the quarterback handled the emotional aspect of a rough performance. Garrett noted that McGee didn't press and make a disastrous mistake when things weren't going well.

And there were plenty of points in the game when McGee's frustration could have gotten the best of him. The Cowboys didn't score an offensive touchdown until their last series.

"It was a rough game," said McGee, who was much more impressive with his feet (55 yards on nine scrambles) than his arm until the final drive. "I just never really felt like I got in a rhythm."

But most young quarterbacks make bad worse, as Garrett noted. McGee didn't do that.

"He just kinda hung in there, kept trying to execute, used his feet when he needed to and then gave us a real good chance to win the game at the end of it," Garrett said.

It's not that McGee was spectacular on the game-winning drive. He wasn't. But he made the right read on a blitz -- something that hadn't happened earlier in the game -- hitting Witten on a hot route that resulted in a 33-yard gain after a long run after the catch. And he put the touchdown pass on the money against man coverage.

McGee is the first to admit that he's got a ton to learn. But he came a long way in the last couple of weeks when he got his first taste of real NFL action.

He heads into the offseason with a much better idea of what he needs to work on and a win under his belt.

"It wasn't pretty, but at the end of the day we got the W," McGee said. "Praise the Lord for that."

And now he can park in peace.

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