Jon Kitna isn't playing like a backup

IRVING, Texas -- Jon Kitna had only one goal when he made the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad in 1996: make enough money in a year to get out of debt.

Fifteen years later, Kitna, 38, is well out of debt and perhaps playing as well as ever.

The Dallas Cowboys' season could have been as shattered as Tony Romo's left collarbone after losing the starting quarterback Oct. 25 against the New York Giants, but Kitna has helped steady the season, even if the playoffs are out of question.

The Cowboys are 3-3 with Kitna as their starter and have won three of their past four heading into Sunday's game versus the Philadelphia Eagles.

Kitna has beaten the Giants' Eli Manning and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning. He gained some sort of redemption by beating one of his former teams, Detroit. He should have beaten New Orleans' Drew Brees if not for a fluky fumble by Roy Williams.

His 89.5 passer rating would be the best of his career and is higher than both Mannings and Carson Palmer, who took over for Kitna in Cincinnati in 2004.

Kitna's only wish is that he could have played better in his first two starts against Jacksonville and Green Bay so the Cowboys would be in playoff contention. But that is a burden all of his teammates can share considering the team's initial reaction to the loss of Romo.

In the past four games, Kitna has a 107.9 passer rating. Only New England's Tom Brady (138.6), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (130.7) and Kansas City's Matt Cassel (112.5) have been better. His 69.3 completion percentage is fourth best. His seven touchdown passes are eighth best. His 8.37 yards per attempt ranks sixth.

"This league makes you feel good when you win," Kitna said. "It's like a drug sometimes I guess. I never did drugs but that's what they say. It feels good. You're definitely never as sore or never as tired."

The last time the Cowboys were forced to use their backup quarterback for an extended period of time came in 2008, and their season went awry. Brad Johnson had a 1-2 record after Romo suffered a broken right pinkie finger, but the offense went nowhere.

Johnson did not have the arm strength to push the ball down the field to his wide receivers. He threw just two touchdown passes and was intercepted five times. At 40, he could not move to avoid the pass rush and was sacked eight times.

At 9-7, the Cowboys missed the playoffs that year by one game.

The argument can be made that Kitna has played better than any backup quarterback who has taken over because of an injury in Jerry Jones' time as owner and general manager.

In 1998, Jason Garrett went 3-2 after Troy Aikman suffered a fractured collarbone, and the Cowboys finished 10-6 and won the NFC East. Garrett threw five touchdown passes and had three interceptions.

In 1991, Steve Beuerlein won the final four regular-season games to help the Cowboys clinch their first playoff spot under Jimmy Johnson. But Beuerlein threw for more than 200 yards in just one start after Aikman went down with a knee injury and had four touchdown passes and two interceptions. The Cowboys rode Emmitt Smith and their defense to an 11-5 finish.

With Kitna at quarterback Garrett has not had to alter the offensive attack. The Cowboys have 23 pass plays of 20 yards or more with Kitna. They had 21 in the first five games under Romo. Kitna has benefited from not only an improved running game, but Garrett's willingness to stick with it since becoming the interim coach.

Romo did not throw fewer than 30 passes in his six full games. Since Garrett has taken over as head coach, Kitna has thrown more than 26 just once (42 versus New Orleans).

The recent run of success has made Kitna briefly wonder what his career would have been like had he been surrounded by the supporting cast he has with the Cowboys. But only briefly.

"I love this game," Kitna said. "I love the opportunity it presents to you to compete at the highest level this game has to offer. That's why I play it."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.