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saint5221 08-12-2003 10:57 AM

Peter Finny's take

Opener reminiscent of 2002 nightmare

Tuesday August 12, 2003

Peter Finney

In Game 1 of any preseason, for some kind of realistic assessment, you always go to the first quarter and stop.

So what did we learn Monday night in the Superdome?

Long before we learned the final score -- Eagles 27, Saints 17 -- we learned the Saints defense, eight months later, is still in late-season form.

On the other hand, we also learned Michael Lewis is still in mid-season form.

Other than that, we learned what we found out last season: A healthy Donovan McNabb ranks right up there among the NFL's elite quarterbacks and, so long as he remains in one piece, the Philadelphia Eagles have as good a shot as anyone to wind up in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

By the time McNabb retired for the evening a mere three minutes and 32 seconds into the game, he was 5-for-5 throwing the ball, including a 29-yard beauty that found arms-extended Fred Mitchell in full stride for a touchdown after the wideout had beaten Tebucky Jones.

That came on the game's first series, with the home crowd waiting for a first look at a revamped Saints defense. It had McNabb marching his team 75 yards in seven plays, not once facing a third down, not once facing pressure, and just once sending his running back, Brian Westbrook, around the left side for an easy 15 yards.

After the touchdown, up stepped the Beer Man to touch off the only black-and-gold fireworks of the evening.

The little guy, who last season set an NFL record for combined yardage returning kickoffs and punts, this time is taking a kickoff 2-yards deep in the end zone and he's taking off. He's in full throttle, beyond midfield, when Lito Sheppard of the Eagles grabs him, spins him around, and in a mini-second embrace, there is Lewis using Sheppard as a cushion, then using his hand to break his fall, then breaking loose and taking it to the house, a 102-yard return.

Or so it seemed.

And then?

A huddle by the officials. The Beer Man was ruled down by contact. A 102-yard return was shaved to a mere 56 yards. As it turned out, it was still good enough to set up the home team's only points of the first half, a 44-yard field goal by John Carney.

Lewis pled his case to no avail. "I never touched the ground," he said, which was obvious in the replay. "The referee said it was an inadvertent whistle. He thought I was down, but he said he blew the whistle faster than he was supposed to."

Which happens.

So what about Aaron Brooks?

He had one meaningful completion, 18 yards to Derrick Brooks. He had a drop by Donté Stallworth. And he had a completion to Derrick Lewis for a first down that was rubbed out by a holding penalty on Wayne Gandy.

Not much there one way or the other. Let's just say when the frontliners were on the field for both teams, the Eagles were quicker, faster and better.

How about when the backups were on the field?

The answer was the same. Philly ruled.

Sheppard enjoyed a better fate later in the evening. He carried a second-quarter punt 88 yards into the end zone, and this time there was no inadvertent whistle.

And let's say this for Eagles kicker David Akers: He got an opportunity to put a strong leg on exhibit. He kicked a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter. Officials ruled "no play." Then he kicked it again from the same distance.

By the time Tory Woodbury took the Saints to a fourth-quarter touchdown, most of the opening night crowd of 67,954 had found the exits. By the time J.T. O'Sullivan took 'em in for another, it was down to a handful.

Let's say this: By the time the Saints and Eagles meet again, Nov. 23 in Philly, we'll know a lot more about Monday's losers. And winners?

As of August 11, we know this: There's plenty of daylight between New Orleans and Philadelphia.

. . . . . . .

Peter Finney can be reached at or (504) 826-3802.

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