PHILADELPHIA -- For a while, everything looked the same. The hunched-over pocket stance, the tap-tap-tapping of the ball, the fidgeting in the pocket finally giving way to his three-quarter, slingshot release to a crossing receiver. Kurt Warner was back to where he used to be, pre-2002, engaged in a first-quarter race with Donovan McNabb's Eagles.
Then, almost as quickly, the man who led the greatest offense in NFL history years ago in St. Louis looked in over his head, average, and unable to keep up with a surging team racing past his own.
Warner's New York Giants debut, a 31-17 loss to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, was as confusing as his drop from excellence the past two years. He wrapped big plays with ones that drive coaches into studio analysts. It's hard to judge the second lease in Warner's career after one game, but a few things seem certain.
The thumb? Looked healed. Warner threw crisp spirals most of the day.
The slippery fingers? Still there. Warner's two fumbles give him a total of eight in his last two season openers.
The DSL-fast reading of defenses, his trademark in St. Louis? Eh.
The result? Unfortunately for Warner, still the same. The guy who went to two Super Bowls in his first three years as a starter hasn't won in his last nine starts.
And, as the case has been with Warner the past few years, he started the game but didn't finish it, as he was told by Eli Manning -- not coach Tom Coughlin -- that he was being benched late in the game. Warner was clearly ticked off by the decision, even though his stay in New York is a leaguewide audition for 2005. And Manning knew. As they passed each other in the press conference room after the game, Warner out and Manning in (as their Giants careers will eventually end), the 23-year-old patted the back of the guy 10 years his senior.
It wasn't easy for either of them.
For bursts on Sunday, Warner looked prepared and ready and excited, almost as much as McNabb. The Eagles quarterback threw two touchdown passes in his first seven attempts. Warner didn't match McNabb toss for toss, but in his biggest game since the Super Bowl against New England three years ago, he was efficient. On the Giants' second possession, Warner shook off a roughing the passer penalty and converted a third-and-5 with a six-yard pass to Tiki Barber. Two plays later, tailback Ron Dayne gave the Giants a 7-0 lead, and suddenly the Giants looked every bit as feisty as the Super Bowl-favorite Eagles. "I thought we did some good things today," Warner said. "We had opportunities."
But Philly still led 14-7 after the first quarter, and as the half drained on, it was clear the Giants were in trouble. At the mercy of an offensive line that would struggle to get you through a Royal Fork buffet line, and throwing to a rusty Jeremy Shockey, Warner started misfiring. He didn't press into coverage -- none of his 28 passes were intercepted, the first full game since the '02 NFC Championship that he hasn't thrown a pick -- but didn't hit the ones he should have. Six plays after a long, arching, blanket-soft toss for 43 yards to Ike Hilliard, Warner had Hilliard open at the goal line. Back in the day, when the receiver would have been Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt, Warner would have fed it in perfectly.
But on this pass, he threw it behind Hilliard, forcing the receiver to twist and drop the ball, and instead of closing the score to 24-14, New York went into the half down by two touchdowns. "That took a lot out of them," said Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. "You could tell."
The blitz-happy Eagles didn't blitz much on Sunday, instead rushing out of their base defense and betting that the Giants' couldn't block them. They couldn't. Warner was sacked four times and had several passes hurried or tipped. He looked switchblade-sharp on a few passes, but confused on others.
"When he had time," said Sheppard, "he could pick us apart. When he didn't, the odds weren't in his favor."
As the second half went on, Warner looked a little more panicked, a little less cool, and that's when the turnovers started. He didn't spot cornerback Sheldon Brown on a blitz, was hit, and fumbled. Down 31-10, he drove the Giants down to the Eagles 1-yard line, but on third-and-goal fumbled the snap. "I just dropped the ball," he said later, "That one was on me."
"That," said Eagles linebacker Mark Simoneau, "had to hurt."
It did. But not as much as when Warner was pulled just before the two-minute warning, the news coming to him via the rookie who will one day take his job. On the sideline, Warner looked more miserable than he ever did last year, when Marc Bulger was taking over Warner's old team in St. Louis. After the game, Warner mentioned the positives. When he said, "Across the board, there were a lot of positives," he was right. But still, the final results were unnerving.
So how good is Warner now? Not good enough to lead a mediocre team past a potentially great one. He's no longer the six-time fumbler of a year ago, but isn't a two-time MVP either.
But, he's out there, and after a Week 1 loss, it's still his job to lose.
And for Warner, that's a good start.
Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.