DONOVAN McNabb had reason to be thankful.

The Eagles quarterback was back on the field for the first time since week one. On the second play of his latest comeback, McNabb dropped back, moved left to avoid a defender and launched a 51-yard touchdown pass to rookie Jeremy Maclin.

It was the beginning of a nearly flawless return to the lineup: 16 for 21, 264 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 157.2 passer rating.

As Maclin picked himself up in the end zone and played to the crowd, the TV camera found McNabb in the midst of his own celebration. The Eagles quarterback was standing with his eyes skyward and palms pressed neatly together as if in prayer. (That image was on Page 1 of Monday's Daily News.) A moment later, he pointed both index fingers toward the heavens.

Watching the game at home over a couple of hoagies, I said to my three boys: "If McNabb had thrown an interception or Maclin had dropped the pass, would either have scowled or shaken his fist at the sky?" I doubt it.

BUT SUCH IS the fusion of sports and religion today.

Athletes cross themselves after making the big play. They yell things like "God is good!" after winning the big game.

They wear gear and get tattoos that bear witness to their religious beliefs.

But have you ever seen a player blame God after a fumble, a strikeout or a turnover? To put it in the lingo of an NFL injury report: Doubtful.

It's not just McNabb, of course. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow cites Scripture in his black under-eye markings, which included playing January's national championship game with "John 3:16" on his face ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.")

A few weeks later, QB Kurt Warner celebrated his Arizona Cardinals' trip to the Super Bowl, which capped his own career "resurrection" by saying: "There's one reason I'm standing up on this stage today. That's because of my Lord up above."

Of course, as author and USA Today contributor Tom Krattenmaker notes, when the Cardinals lost the Super Bowl two weeks later, Warner was gracious in his postgame remarks - but left the Lord up above out of it.

Krattenmaker addresses the infusion of religion into big-time sports in his new book, "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers." His problem is not with religious athletes but what he sees fueling their frequent public displays of religion.

He observes a movement that "promotes an exclusive theology (and politics) counter to the interests of the majority of us in a religiously, politically diverse America." There is, he writes, an overemphasis on evangelical Christianity and right-wing politics that dominate to the exclusion of other beliefs and worldviews.

"It troubles me when you have individuals and organizations operating in sports that promote this exclusive doctrine that essentially says our version of Christianity is right and other people won't be in good standing with God," Krattenmaker told me.

His is NOT a hit-piece on Christian athletes.

He's correct to avoid condemning religious players or advocating for separation of church and sport. ("The installation of complete secularity in and around pro sports hardly constitutes a fair and neutral playing field for diverse America," he writes at the book's conclusion.)

Obviously, there's absolutely nothing wrong with athletes' maintaining strongly held religious beliefs. Indeed, it would seem that many of today's stars - who continue to encounter fame and wealth at younger and younger ages - would do well to adopt the humility and regard for others that Christianity espouses.

But enough with the pointing to the sky and shout-outs to God during postgame interviews.

They've become gaudy, excessive, and routine to the point of saturation. And now that a "Hallelujah!" accompanies every home run and Hail Mary pass, I doubt that these postgame proclamations are effective evangelical tools anyway.

Why? Because they evidence a flimsy notion of spirituality. How can an athlete celebrate God's presence in victory only to ignore it in defeat?

Take a page from T.O.'s book. Stick with the celebrations of yesteryear. Fist pump. High five. Toss the ball to the ref.

Athletes are already expected to be role models and spokesmen. It's inappropriate for them to be amateur theologians as well.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at