When the Eagles more or less told Reno Mahe to get lost last offseason, they said they wanted returners who would "change the field" - get enough return yardage to alter the field-position equation.

Change can be painful, though.

Which is one reason Mahe was standing in front of a cluster of microphones at lunchtime yesterday, in a shaded corner just outside the NovaCare practice facility, talking about his abrupt return to the team he returned punts and kicks for (mostly punts) from 2003 to '06.

That business of peering up into the sky, gauging the punt's spin, settling under it, catching it and then trying to avoid people running headlong at you with a full head of steam is perhaps a bit tricky. Maybe it's more complicated than the Eagles' brain trust thought, when it first settled on former Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, then cut him and threw Greg Lewis and then J.R. Reed into the opening-game fray, after Bloom proved insufficiently Devin Hesterish in preseason games.

"Picture being on the freeway, looking up, trying to catch something, and the cars coming after you," Mahe said. "It's one of those things that not everyone wants to do . . . if you don't make the right choice, you're going to get hit . . . If you have a knack for it, it can keep you around."

Indeed, when Mahe showed up as an undrafted rookie from BYU and was switched from wideout to running back by the Eagles, nobody around the team saw him as more than undersized training-camp fodder. But Mahe turned returning into a 4-year career, and now he's embarking on Year 5, just a little late. You know the deal with Mahe - great hands, good lateral quickness, no straight-line speed. Adequate, from the standpoint that he probably won't give the game away, as Lewis and Reed did Sunday at Green Bay. But no threat to break one for a touchdown, or even to "change the field."

"There's no doubt that Jeremy Bloom was faster than me," Mahe said. "They wanted him to stretch the field when he caught the punt and things like that. We're two different players in that sense. But that's just how the business works . . . we bring two different things to the table. They wanted to try something different."

What they tried Sunday was really, really different. Unique, even. Lewis failed to fair catch the Packers' first punt, was blasted as he caught it, and saw the ball bounce into the end zone, where Green Bay recovered for its only touchdown. Reed, accustomed to having to field every ball as a kick returner, came dashing in on a sinking liner of a punt, called for a fair catch, then tried to make a diving grab. His muff, recovered by the Packers, set up the game-winning field goal on the final play.

"You've got to be able to read the game, you've got to be able to stay healthy - there's a lot of different things to it," Mahe said.

"You're trying to catch a football, but a lot of it has to do with your mind-set," said Mahe, who apparently will return kicks and punts Monday night against the Redskins, since the team released Reed, the kick returner signed a week before the season. "Today, when I was catching, I kept telling myself, 'Look, I can do this, I'm good at this.' And then I felt good. Once you start doubting yourself is when you start shaking it up."

Mahe feels he will be plenty confident Monday, even though his last live runback came in January, and he knows he isn't as ready as he would be had he been to training camp.

"You can stay in shape . . . but you can never really be in football shape unless you're doing football," Mahe said. "I think it'll take a couple weeks, as far as being in top football shape." *