ARLINGTON, Texas -- The chance to be a hero was there for Kyle Orton.
He could put his name next to Clint Longley, Jason Garrett, Steve Beuerlein and Bernie Kosar as backup quarterbacks who saved a game -- or, in Sunday’s case, a season -- for the Dallas Cowboys.
With 1:49 to play, the Cowboys had the ball at their 32-yard line. All they needed was a field goal and the NFC East was theirs. All they needed was 40 yards on a night in which they put up 417 yards, and a playoff spot was theirs for the first time since 2009.
Playing only because Tony Romo had back surgery two days prior, Orton entered the game against the Philadelphia Eagles with just five pass attempts on the season and 15 in the past two. He was so close to being that guy for the Cowboys.
“I wish I had the throw back,” Orton said.
On first down, Orton looked to the slot to Miles Austin. The Eagles showed pressure before the snap. Austin won on his route, but Orton’s pass was behind, giving Brandon Boykin the chance to end the Cowboys' season and Orton's heroics with an interception.
Just like that, the Cowboys’ season was over. For the third straight year they finished 8-8. For the third straight year they failed to win an NFC East decider in Week 17. For the second straight year they were done in by a fourth-quarter interception. Last year it was a Romo interception with three minutes to play against the Washington Redskins with the Cowboys trailing by three points.
“Everybody puts in a lot through a season, and this is my chance to contribute,” Orton said. “Had a chance down two with two minutes to go and expected to make the plays. Miles ran a good route, and I just have to make that throw.”
But blaming Orton for the loss would be beyond wrong.
Starting for the first time since the 2011 season finale with the Kansas City Chiefs, he finished with 358 yards on 30-of-46 passing. It was the second-most passing yards by a quarterback in his first start for the Cowboys since Jon Kitna (who was Orton's backup Sunday) in 2010. He threw touchdown passes to Gavin Escobar and Dez Bryant. He was not sacked.
It wasn't perfect. His first interception came on a late throw to Jason Witten. He overthrew Bryant on a deep ball in the fourth quarter. He was late on the throw to Austin.
“Obviously there were a couple of plays in that game that he would love to have back, but I think if you look at the whole body of work, I think he did a heckuva job,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He had a great week of practice. He was prepared. He was confident. I thought the guys responded to him. [He] made a ton of big plays in this game over and over and over again.”
None was bigger than the 32-yard touchdown to Bryant. On fourth-and-9, he hit Bryant in stride and saw the receiver break free from safety Patrick Chung for the touchdown with 3:50 to play that made it 24-22. On the two-point conversion try, he went back to Bryant. Eagles cornerback Cary Williams was able to deflect the low pass to maintain the Eagles’ advantage.
“It was tight coverage,” Orton said. “I probably could’ve gave him a better ball, but one-on-one to Dez, we’ve taken our chances there all year.”
Orton had one chance. The one he dreamed about before the game but didn’t think about when he walked on the field.
“It was such a back-and-forth game the whole game, you’re just kind of focusing on that drive and not trying to get too far ahead of yourself,” Orton said.
Dan Bailey would not get a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal. There would be no celebration inside AT&T Stadium. The NFC East championship hats and T-shirts with the Cowboys logo never got out of the box.
“It’s frustrating when your season is done, no matter when it is,” Orton said. “You put a lot into it and it’s just a disheartening way for us to go out.”