FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - DeSean Jackson was the last Eagle off the field. As the rookie flipped his visor into the group of Eagles fans clustered above the Gillette Stadium tunnel, Jackson suddenly lengthened his stride and sprinted for the locker room.
Eagles spokesman Bob Lange, who had been jogging alongside the team's hottest new property, suddenly was struggling to remain within hailing distance. Now Lange knew how the Patriots felt.
"That's 4.33 speed vs. 6.0 speed," Lange said later, still looking a bit sweaty.
Turns out, the Eagles drafted this clever, top-secret plan to deflect attention from their wide receiver situation, in the wake of Kevin Curtis' sports-hernia surgery.
They instructed rookies Quintin Demps and Jackson to go out last night and run a kickoff and a punt, respectively, back for first-half touchdowns against the host New England Patriots, keying a 27-17 Eagles preseason victory.
We'll go right out on a limb and make a prediction: If the Birds run a kickoff and a punt back for TDs every week (they never did either last season), nobody will care what week it is when Curtis returns.
The Eagles don't play the Patriots this regular season. If they did, we're guessing that coach Bill Belichick would find better special-teams tacklers than he had last night, and that Matt Cassel would not be New England's quarterback.
But just the same, it was reassuring to finally see some tangible results from the Birds' offseason emphasis on special teams - you can't fault the kick and punt teams for not being very good the first two preseason games, then discount what they do in the third game because it's only the preseason.
Along the same lines, if Donovan McNabb had been significantly worse than his first-half 13-for-17 for 180 yards and a touchdown, you would have been hearing that it was far from meaningless, that his receivers were all terrible.
None of this is to say the Eagles don't still need help at wide receiver. Still, Jackson, who caught four passes for 67 yards in the first half, as the Birds built a 24-3 halftime lead and then yanked their starters, is far from terrible.
The major bad news of the first half was safety Brian Dawkins' cart ride to the locker room midway through the second quarter, after suffering what coach Andy Reid afterward called a right ankle strain. Reid said Dawkins would have an MRI exam today.
"All in all, I thought it was a good game in spots," said Reid, who thought his team still took too many penalties (eight for 121 yards). "I was glad to see we tackled better and caught the ball better than we did last week . . . And then I thought our special teams played better . . . It was good to see the young returners do some things . . . I think they're both explosive players."
Reid also said he thought he had "to keep one eye on each of them," now that they've had some success. Neither Jackson nor Demps lacks confidence; Jackson said Reid jokingly broke up his celebration with Demps after their twin touchdowns, as they stood with arms crossed, posed, Jackson said, "like tough guys."
Jackson was in Philadelphia this week. He tasted the near-hysteria of some of the fan base over Curtis' injury, which comes at a time when fellow starter Reggie Brown is out with a hamstring pull.
"I just wanted to show to the fans, everybody that's watching, coaches, everybody, that I'm capable of getting the job done," Jackson said. "I'm young, I'm a rookie and things like that, but I definitely feel I play very confident . . . I just know what I'm capable of doing."
Perhaps a bit surprisingly, it was Reid who noted that Jackson was a starter right away, in high school and in college, and wasn't overwhelmed in either situation. It was hard not to think we were hearing the rationale for Reid starting a rookie wideout in Week 1.
In a couple of interviews this week, including one right before the game on Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live," Eagles president Joe Banner hinted at a new offensive wrinkle that would answer the wide-receiving questions. Well, the Birds lined up for their first snap with Brian Westbrook flanked wide, but that isn't anything real new. Then they dinked and dunked their way down the field, eating up 6 minutes, 43 seconds and advancing 76 yards, but they settled for a 24-yard field goal. That, sadly, also was not new. (Reid said afterward Banner was just having fun with the media.)
With Tom Brady sitting out with a foot injury, the Pats' first series wasn't even that good. On the home team's first snap, Eagles cornerback and ex-Pat Asante Samuel sniffed out a Randy Moss end-around, taking down Moss for a 5-yard loss, to the sound of resounding boos from his former fans. It was as if Samuel might have seen that play before, in practice, perhaps.
The Birds looked much better on a 73-yard second-quarter drive that led to a 7-yard McNabb touchdown pass to Jason Avant and a 10-0 lead. The drive included two third-and-short conversions by new fullback Tony Hunt, a nice 25-yard completion to Jackson down the right side against Jeff Shoate and Rodney Harrison, and an 18-yard pass to L.J. Smith.
The Eagles made it 17-0 on another 7-yard TD pass, this time to Hank Baskett, but it was taken away by one of those excruciating, let's-see-if-we-can-find-a-tiny-problem-here replay challenges. Everyone in the stadium and on TV saw Baskett reach out with the ball and plant it in the end zone, before it bounced out of bounds. But if you watched enough replays, you could discern the ball wobbling as Baskett brought it out, after being hit. This meant that not only did Baskett not score the touchdown everyone saw him score, the Patriots got the ball at their 20.
They then drove for their first points, a 35-yard field goal set up by a 47-yard pass interference penalty on Sean Considine.
The Eagles got their touchdown back right away. Demps took the ensuing kickoff right up the middle, bounced out of a tackle by kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and was untouched by any other Patriot en route to a 101-yard score that made it 17-3.
"He gotta get in the weight room," Demps said of Gostkowski.
Someone wondered what a returner sees, as he heads upfield.
"You see three fat boys and a fast dude in front of you [blocking]," Demps said. "You get behind all four of them."
Gosh, it sounds so simple when you put it that way.
Then, when the Patriots punted with 14 seconds left in the half, Jackson made them pay for not kicking away from him, which might have been the plan, judging from the animated conversation between Belichick and punter Chris Hanson that subsequently took place on the sideline.
"It's the New England Patriots; they're a very confident team, and a great team, also," Jackson said afterward.
On the Eagles' sideline, Jackson said, he'd been watching Demps, thinking, "Dang, he scored one before I did . . . I knew the next time I got out there I was going to have to take it the distance, because he took it the distance."
Jackson darted up the middle, then broke right, gliding 76 yards to the end zone as time ran out in the half.
"It was a beautiful punt return," Jackson said. "I felt the punter . . . kind of outkicked his coverage, and I just did a great job of catching the ball and making two moves to the side, and hitting the seam and getting right up the middle. From there, it was nothing but daylight."
Backup QB Kevin Kolb led a 90-yard third-quarter drive that ended with a 24-yard David Akers field goal and a 27-3 Eagles lead. The Pats' third-stringers scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns on the Birds' third-stringers.
Andy Reid said he still couldn't offer a time frame on Kevin Curtis' return from sports-hernia surgery. The types of surgeries and the recoveries can vary. "It wasn't the worst one we've seen. It wasn't the simplest one we've seen," Reid said . . . Eagles right guard Shawn Andrews played only the first two series before being replaced by Max Jean-Gilles. Reid said he saw what he needed to see from Andrews. Backup center Nick Cole came in at the same time, after Jamaal Jackson suffered a concussion. "I really feel like I'm close to where I need to be for the opener, and I'm definitely going to get there in 2 weeks," Andrews said after his first action of the preseason, following treatment for depression. "I was very pleased, with the exception of a couple of plays." *