In his third year with the Dallas Cowboys, Stephen McGee has taken on a new role: baby sitter.
McGee is the quarterback of the third string, a collection of late-round picks, undrafted free agents and journeymen. Since he's been around long enough to know every nuance of his role, he learned everyone else's, too. So before every play he goes around the huddle and makes sure linemen know whom to block and that running backs and receivers know every step they're supposed to take.
That's awfully nice of him.
Pretty savvy, too.
"If they mess up, it's not going to be, `Oh, so-and-so ran the wrong route.' It's going to be, `McGee took another sack,"' McGee said. "I've got to take control. I can't let their mistakes be my mistakes."
This is the next step in McGee's evolution from project to keeper, from an option quarterback at Texas A&M to the guy who next season could be the primary backup to Tony Romo. Yes, next season -- 2012. This season, McGee knows he will continue to be No. 3 behind Romo and Jon Kitna.
The one perk is that McGee gets extended playing time in the preseason. He made the most of it during the opener, rallying Dallas to a victory with a last-minute touchdown and go-ahead two-point conversion against Denver, and he's hoping to build on that Sunday night in a nationally televised game against the San Diego Chargers.
"This is my regular season," he said.
The Chargers lost their preseason opener 24-17 to the Seahawks, with Philip Rivers looking sharp in his lone series. Their revamped defense allowed just 85 yards in the first half.
First-round draft pick Corey Liuget played more than 40 snaps on the defensive line, showing his promise as San Diego tries to get him ready for the regular-season opener.
Romo and the Dallas starters are going to play more than one long series, like they did in the opener, but Cowboys coach Jason Garrett wouldn't put any parameters on it. McGee is still likely to play most of the second half.
Dallas and San Diego practiced together Thursday and Friday, so it should be interesting to see whether there's any carry-over.
Things are different this training camp for McGee. No longer is he a wide-eyed rookie overwhelmed by his big opportunity, or an unproven backup fighting for the chance to prove himself, like he was last season. His roster spot is secure.
His make-or-break moment came late last season, when Romo was on injured reserve and Kitna got hurt, too. McGee played well in a loss to Arizona, then started the season finale at Philadelphia and pulled out a win with a late touchdown pass to Jason Witten.
McGee was far from the instant sensation Romo was when he soared from obscurity. But McGee showed enough for the organization not to sign or draft any quarterbacks this offseason, content to see how much better he can get.
"There's something about him," Witten said. "He's got that makeup of a true leader. ... I think he showed that he can rise to the occasion. It's easy to do it on scout team and to do it in practice. It's another thing to do it on the road."
McGee jokes that his performance last year "gives me a couple of stripes on my sleeves," but that he's still an apprentice. He's OK with that, too, content to get the most out of his time around Kitna, a 15-year veteran who has endured most of the highs and lows any NFL quarterback could experience. Kitna turns 39 next month and is in the final year of his contract, opening a clear path for McGee into the No. 2 slot next season.
"I try to watch him every chance I get -- his demeanor, the way he leads in the huddle, the way he is off the field, in the locker room or the way he is in the video room, the way he drops, the way he plays the game, all those things," McGee said.
McGee is surrounded by guys who understand his predicament and are eager to help. Beside Kitna and Romo, he has Garrett and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson. In the mid-1990s, during Troy Aikman's heyday in Dallas, Wilson was the second-stringer and Garrett the third-stringer.
In the preseason opener against Denver, McGee threw an interception in the second quarter and took a sack that could've derailed a fourth-quarter rally. But he made the plays that counted most, scrambling to find an open receiver for a touchdown and hitting a tight end for the winning points. In the fourth quarter alone, he was 7 of 9 for 128 yards and two touchdowns, plus the conversion.
Garrett was so thrilled by it all that he smacked McGee with his play card about as hard as any of the Broncos hit him.
"Stephen's a guy that we really like," Garrett said. "One of the things we try to emphasize to all of our players, especially our quarterbacks, is to go play. `Go play football just like it's Burnet, Texas, a lot of years ago.' He hears that from me a lot. Sometimes you've got to punch him in the shoulder pad to remind him of that. As that game wore on, he was out there playing football and it was fun to see."