The Dallas Cowboys are still a heck of a football team, tied for first place in the NFC East with a running back on pace to break the single-season rushing record and a defense that remains passable even as it struggles with a talent gap that should, on paper, make it one of the less successful units in the league. But as they say, you win some and you lose some, and last night, the Cowboys lost one: Washington came to town, helmed by one-time Texas hero Colt McCoy, and the end result was a shocking overtime loss.

The Cowboys will be fine—even after Tony Romo missed much of the third and fourth quarters with a scary-looking injury, from which he returned to attempt to win the game on the final drive and in overtime—but the night belonged to Colt McCoy. That’s not a sentence anyone could have reasonably expected to say in 2014 unless they were talking about, say, a bunch of Dunkin Donuts locations opening throughout Central Texas all at once, or perhaps if he gave a really great stump speech in support of Greg Abbott. But McCoy, starting an NFL game for the first time since 2011 in place of the injured Robert Griffin III and the terrible Kirk Cousins, got the job done on the field. 

(Of course, the real hero of Monday night’s matchup was the Washington defense, which forced fumbles, clobbered the quarterback, and limited Murray’s success to the stat sheet, rather than the end zone, but it’s a quarterback’s league, and Colt McCoy is a quarterback.) 

McCoy was efficient, if unspectacular, in his fill-in role as starter. He completed a whopping 83% of his passes for 299 yards—largely by taking advantage of Washington’s deep threat, DeSean Jackson, with additional connections to receiver Pierre Garcon, as well as the team’s dual tight ends. He threw one dumb interception in the end zone, but generally looked comfortable playing football professionally for the first time in several years. He didn’t throw for a touchdown, but he surprised the Cowboys by rushing for one on 3rd and long. In other words, McCoy did everything he needed to do. He threw 30 passes, and only five of them didn’t result in a completion. He both managed the game and pushed the ball downfield. Who knew? 

It’s worth mentioning right now, if only to throw cold water on the heads of celebrating Longhorns, that Kirk Cousins had similar success in Washington’s offense when he initially took over for Griffin. Cousins began to struggle as teams amassed more game tape on the backup, and his efficiency gave way to enough turnovers to create the opportunity for McCoy. Still, for the time being, Colt McCoy is 1-0 as a starter since leaving a bad situation with the Cleveland Browns. 

The bigger question than “what happened last night,” for Colt McCoy fans, is “what happens next.” And it’s not really the most exciting question to answer: Robert Griffin III could return from his ankle injury as soon as next Sunday, when the team plays the Minnesota Vikings. If he doesn’t, he’s almost certain to reclaim the starting job for the team’s next game, which will come following a bye. Which means that McCoy’s impression on the NFL landscape could be restricted to the one game he played last night. 

That’s significant, because his deal with Washington ends at the end of the current season. While the team would presumably be thrilled to keep him around to back up Griffin, with one efficient, successful primetime game against a quality opponent on tape, McCoy might have to consider: Could he find himself in a starting role elsewhere next year? 

The answer there is a resounding, “I dunno, maybe.” McCoy isn’t likely to get a huge-money deal to start anywhere, but middling journeyman quarterbacks who pull off a big game or two have been known to get lucky when QB-hungry teams come calling. Josh McCown, another passer with Texas ties, managed to parlay a successful fill-in stretch in Chicago last year into a high-dollar job in Tampa Bay (which he promptly lost, after struggling both on-field and with injuries). Matt Flynn had a single record-breaking night in Green Bay a few years back in relief of Aaron Rodgers, and turned that into starting-caliber paychecks with two different teams in the years that followed (he’s since returned to the Packers, where he once more backs up Rodgers). 

In other words, a team like the New York Jets or the Houston Texans, which lacks a clear long-term starter, could gamble on McCoy’s performance last night and make the guy an offer. He’s unlikely to become Tom Brady, but he could become Ryan Fitzpatrick or Kyle Orton or Matt Moore or Chad Henne or Josh McCown or Carson Palmer or Michael Vick—a placeholder quarterback who can compete for a starting job, but who isn’t the face of anybody’s franchise, employed until the team falls in love with a rookie in the draft. 

Alternately, of course, McCoy could choose to stay in Washington. That’d be a move that makes sense for him, if he thinks that his starting prospects are spotty elsewhere. Griffin has yet to play 16 games in a season, which makes the backup job in Washington one of the more appealing gigs in the NFL for a quarterback who wants to play. 

Ultimately, the fact that it’s 2014 and we’re even having this conversation—the fact that people who follow the NFL are asking, “How good is Colt McCoy really?”—is a huge deal for McCoy and his legion of Longhorn followers. In the offseason, there seemed to be a decent chance that he’d be out of the league and pursuing opportunities alongside Vince Young in the UT Athletic Department. Instead, he’s on the radar. It’ll take a heck of a lot more than a single no-touchdown, one-interception passing game against a middle-of-the-pack Cowboys defense to convince us that McCoy is a quality NFL starter, but he might have proven himself to be, say, the 40th best quarterback in the NFL last night. There are jobs for about 80 of them, so McCoy’s tenure in the league will probably continue. And if he starts again next week, opposite a tough Minnesota defense, and does well? Anything is possible. A few months ago, very little seemed possible. At the very least, it’ll be interesting to watch—and nothing about Colt McCoy was even remotely interesting until very, very recently. 

(AP Photo/Tim Sharp)