With the captain missing, Luke McCown shows a steady hand — and Ryan Griffin shows flashes of brilliance

Luke McCown wasn’t quite himself during the preseason opener against the Rams.

The bandage wrapped around his pinkie, which he dislocated four days earlier, prevented him from doing everything he wanted to do.

The New Orleans Saints altered their game plan because of his pinkie. The pinkie altered his throws.

“We wanted to protect that a little bit. Now we’re two weeks (removed from the injury),” McCown said. “It was a little more normal tonight -- able to throw the ball with a little more zip and accuracy.”

It showed. With Drew Brees sidelined with a left oblique injury, Friday night’s 31-24 win over the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome marked the second round of the backup quarterback battle between McCown and Ryan Griffin.

Where McCown (12 of 20 passes for 117 yards with two touchdowns) picked apart the defense on a consistent flow of short or immediate passes, Griffin (13 of 19 for 179 yards with two touchdowns) put some air under the ball and picked up yards in bunches.

McCown needed to show up after losing some ground in the first preseason game against the St. Louis Rams. It wasn’t that McCown played poorly in that game (7-for-10, 49 yards, one interception). It was the cheaper, younger Griffin turned up the heat by completing 16 of 23 passes for 179 yards with a touchdown against the Rams.

He answered the call.

McCown’s first drive had shades of Brees all over it. He spread the ball around, connecting with four of the six receivers he targeted, to move the Saints 80 yards for a touchdown. It probably isn’t a coincidence that two of his best moments came on third downs when he was rolled out of the pocket.

McCown got himself in trouble by folding under pressure against the Rams. One such play resulted in an interception when he saw a cornerback blitz coming off the left edge. On Friday, McCown trusted his feet, avoided pressure, and was able to extend plays.

On the first third down of the initial scoring drive, McCown rolled out to his left and found Pierre Thomas on the sideline. From snap to throw the play lasted 4.1 seconds. The final third down of the series, which resulted in a 6-yard touchdown reception for Jimmy Graham, was similar to the first. Pressure once again arrived, causing McCown to roll out to his right. He again showed patience and let the play develop, taking 4.9 seconds before finding Graham.

“In Luke’s series, him flush and make some plays outside the pocket,” Payton said. “... I think there’s a lot of positives to coach on — not based on the tape — but first impressions.”

McCown suffered a lull on his next two series, which featured a sailed pass and a forced pass to Graham on a third-down play. But he battled back and appeared to close the door on Griffin a little further when he found Graham up the seam for a 19-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give New Orleans a 14-10 lead.

Griffin came with a little more than two minutes remaining on the clock and sailed his first pass out of bounds. On his next play, Griffin sailed a pass down the left sideline and into the hands of wide receiver Joe Morgan for a 53-yard gain. He then found Mark Ingram on a screen for a 23-yard touchdown on the next play to give the Saints a 21-17 lead.

“I thought you saw (Griffin) step up and buy a little time and get the ball down the field a little bit,” Payton said.

The door reopened.

Griffin, however, did not kick it down. He led two failed drives, one of which featured an interception that was saved by a flag and another that featured him taking a sack after holding the ball for 6.25 seconds and missing a throw on third down.

“Some of those passes today that even were completed — I wish I had better ball placement,” Griffin. “I just have to get out there and get more comfortable with some of the guys.”

He did, however, show more consistency on his next drive, completing all five of his attempts before the Saints stalled at the 32-yard line. He also couldn’t get anything going following an interception that was negated by a flag.

But Griffin battled back before coming out late in the fourth quarter. He led a scoring drive, culminating in a short touchdown pass to Seantavius Jones, but not after almost being picked off on a short pass to the left side.

“I feel like there’s a lot that I’m yet to show,” Griffin said. “I still have a lot of things I need to work on. It’s a process.”

After letting Griffin get ahead last week, McCown battled back. Either man could be declared Friday’s winner.

After two weeks, this battle will likely need more time before someone is named Brees’ top backup.