GREEN BAY - As the town prepares for a rousing game of "pin the tail on the punt returners," always so much fun, it is important to remember that the real target is bigger, much bigger, than Greg Lewis or J.R. Reed. This fiasco is on Andy Reid and no one else.

Lewis muffed a punt early that led to the Packers' only touchdown, and Reed muffed a punt late that led to the Packers' game-winning field goal, but this 16-13 loss, this abomination, does not belong to them. Lewis and Reed did not lose that game yesterday for the Eagles with their slapstick - the coach and the organization lost it by forcing two novices into this position in the first place.

They tend to be such a cautious, careful franchise - but this whole business was the height of carelessness. Following a training camp whose official movie was "One Crazy Summer," the Eagles have now seen this carelessness cost them a game. They will have to work overtime to keep it from costing them more.

"We'll see - I'll evaluate it," Reid said. It was as far as the coach would go yesterday, speaking briefly amid the ruins. He said he did not consider using Brian Westbrook to return punts yesterday as the chaos swirled all around, and as for the future he said, "We'll see."

But just as Westbrook's famous punt return against the Giants a few years ago ignited a team and saved a season, there are few things in football more disheartening than a dropped punt, few plays that do more to kill a football team.

The Eagles will have to make a change, either to Westbrook (risking overwork) or someone else. There is no choice. It is amazing how Reid got himself into this spot in the first place.

It was so unlike him.

Reid somehow fell in love with the idea of Jeremy Bloom, the skier - the root of all of this business. He had always been all about ball security, about veteran savvy, about just not screwing it up. It is not a coincidence that "no harm" is contained within the name "Reno Mahe."

But they spent draft capital on this Bloom, and then they worked with him for a year after he got hurt, and then they spent the whole summer watching him catch punts flawlessly but get taken down by the first guy who breathed on him. Despite all of their efforts, they determined it wasn't going to work. And after they cut him and wished him well in his modeling career, they looked around and saw - nothing.

That the Eagles had no backup plan when they cut Bloom was organizational negligence. That they then decided that it would be a swell idea to open the season with Lewis back there (who had never done it), and with Reed back there (who had never done it), it was borderline arrogance. It was as if they were saying that anybody could catch a punt - after years of telling us that Mahe's sure-handedness was such an important quality, that it made up for the fact that he never broke a return.

And now we know that not anybody can catch a punt. Boy, do we know.

When asked if he was apprehensive at the prospects of a virgin punt returner, Reid admitted yesterday, "Yeah." Then he added, "I thought they'd do a good job, though."

But they didn't. They were abominable. We will never again see punt returning this bad in a single game because it is impossible to be worse than Lewis and Reed were yesterday against the Packers. Lewis made a sufficient number of bad decisions that the coach felt forced to give him the hook in the second half and turn the chores over to Reed - who has been cut by four teams in the last year, including the Eagles.

"Neither one of them had [experience], but J.R. probably had more than what Greg had," Reid said, explaining why he made the change in the middle of the game. "I just thought I'd get a better look at him."

He got an eyeful.

But this has become one of the season's themes, this suddenly comfortable embrace of the high wire. You see it in big ways and small. They went with Sav Rocca, the inexperienced punter with all of the potential, over safe incumbent Dirk Johnson. They brought in another inexperienced backup linebacker, Pago Togafau, rather than a just-in-case veteran when they were doing their final roster-making. And they went with Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed to catch punts in the season opener at Green Bay.

And what have they learned? Mostly, that working without a net can be so . . . final. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com.

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