IRVING, Texas - Here's how the Dallas Cowboys are likely to close a season that can't end soon enough: with a third-string quarterback making his first career start and everyone holding their breath on extra-point attempts.
Just when it seemed the Cowboys might salvage something from the final months of this season, their fortunes turned again. All the screwball mistakes that drove them to being 1-7 and got their coach fired, and had mostly disappeared under interim coach Jason Garrett, returned with a vengeance Saturday night in Arizona.
They threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. A cornerback blew an assignment, clearing the way for a 74-yard touchdown pass. They made a valiant comeback anyway, yet continued to do things like get penalized for celebrating a touchdown and kicking an extra point wide left. That last goof gave the Cardinals a chance to win it with a field goal and that's exactly what they did, but only after converting a fourth-and-15 against a defense that had played well most of the second half.
"This has been quite a year of disappointment - real disappointment, real surprise," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Some of those things we were doing out there have been with us since the day we walked out of training camp, unfortunately."
This kooky 27-26 loss did such a good job of capsulizing everything that's made 2010 so forgettable, there was even an injury to the starting quarterback.
Jon Kitna strained an abdominal muscle - while throwing a touchdown pass, of all things - and may not be ready to start the finale next Sunday, when the Eagles host the Cowboys at Lincoln Financial Field. That would mean Stephen McGee would get the chance to show what he can do with a whole week of preparation.
McGee was forced into action for the first time in his 2-year career Saturday night and looked nervous. He had reason to be.
Garrett made it clear the team lacked faith in McGee by declaring him an emergency-only option even though the playoff hopes were gone. The Cowboys preferred using the 38-year-old Kitna against another team already eliminated from the playoffs, valuing a better chance of winning over the chance to see what the kid could do. Then Garrett called mostly running plays.
Finally allowed to throw, McGee went 11 of 17 for 111 yards and a spectacular touchdown to Miles Austin. It covered 37 yards and put the Cowboys ahead 26-24 with 1:41 left. That's when David Buehler jerked the extra point to the wrong side of the left upright.
"I think I just rushed it a little bit," said Buehler, the first Dallas kicker with two missed PATs in a season since 1995.
McGee was sacked once and didn't have any turnovers. He threw some balls in the dirt and had poor timing with Austin and Jason Witten, but that was to be expected since he'd never thrown to them in a game or even a practice.
"There was a little bit of getting comfortable, just getting the feel of it, getting the cadence, getting the guys moving, getting the play in and out quickly, little things that I wanted to be on top of and that were going through my mind," he said. "Other than that, I felt like I was out there playing ball again."
The Cowboys thought Kitna had a hip pointer. But a painkilling shot didn't help, and it was later diagnosed as a strained abdominal muscle. The pain extended toward the groin area.
"I think it's doubtful from what I heard in there that we're going to have Jon back," Jones said after the game. "The trainers didn't give me any encouragement."
Had the Cowboys (5-10) pulled out the win, they would've clinched a winning record under Garrett. Instead, they are 4-3 with another near-miss. His three losses have been by a total of seven points. There's little solace in that, though, because Dallas had plenty of close losses under Wade Phillips, too.
This one was bizarre even by 2010 standards. The defense forced Arizona to go three-and-out on its first series, yet the Cardinals were up 14-0 the next time their offense took a snap. They hit one big play, courtesy of Mike Jenkins' ridiculous coverage of a rookie receiver, and mustered only two field goals.
"I feel playing the way we are, we're building on something," tight end Jason Witten said. "To lose that way, it's hard."