Rabalais: Was Saints’ opener real football? Maybe not, but it’s coming

There are three stages to watching a preseason NFL game.

First comes the euphoria that you are once again witnessing football — real shoulder pads-clashing, ball carriers-slashing football. This allows you to finally erase February’s Ravens-49ers Super Bowl from your DVR and give in to your child’s incessant plea to record 2½ hours of Disney Channel programming in high-definition splendor.

The second stage is the realization that this isn’t real football at all — not the kind that John Facenda would have immortalized with his hypnotic baritone, anyway. By the second quarter, there are players on the field so obscure they couldn’t pick themselves out of a lineup.

The third stage is the “Let’s get this over so I can watch ‘Shark Week’ ” phase, though not before you Google the kickoff time for the Saints’ next preseason game (7 p.m. next Friday at home against the Oakland Raiders). I mean, you have your principles.

If you wanted to find value in investing in a ticket to or three hours on the couch watching the Saints’ 17-13 preseason-opening victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, you had to hunt for it like Red October, but it was there.

First you had to get past the fact that most of the starters only played a couple of series at most. By the fourth quarter, Saints safety Roman Harper was tweeting (or someone was tweeting on his behalf).

Sean Payton was riveted, though. After what had to be a tortured year watching on TV or from a posh suite — “Coach, the red or the white wine to start the second half?” — because of Bountygate, stalking the sideline with his visor and a laminated play sheet had to be a delight for him and Saints fans everywhere.

His presence is symbolic of a ship that will both run tighter and is back on course, the reasoning being if the Saints could limp along at 7-9 without him they should at least be a playoff contender with him.

His last game coaching being a playoff classic with the San Francisco 49ers, Payton had the perspective of demanding more than what he got even in a lite version of an NFL game.

“I didn’t want to come in and be so negative, but there are a lot of things that I think we need to clean up,” Payton said. “You have this certain expectation and you know it’s preseason, and yet you’ve got 10 guys on the field and we can’t get the right personnel out there.

“I just thought it was sloppy.”

After making sure Payton was really on the case and not some cardboard cutout or something, a nation of Who Dats turned their eyes to the new 3-4 defense.

First blush was encouraging but leaned toward inconclusive. Kansas City’s starters plowed the Saints’ starters like the north 40 on the game’s first drive, rolling 80 yards in 14 methodical plays to score on a 1-yard Jamaal Charles touchdown.

After that, though, the Saints held the Chiefs to two field goals, helping New Orleans finish with a 427-215 edge in total offense that would be breathtaking in the regular season.

In this context, though, did the Saints show any real improvement? Despite being under new management with Andy Reid, this is still Kansas City we’re talking about, not an AFC juggernaut that will give Peyton Manning and Tom Brady insomnia. For now, take two preseason games and leave us a wake-up call for the Houston Texans in preseason Week 3.

The real drama is in the little battles, the little victories and defeats throughout a game for players trying to earn roster spots.

There was the sight of Saints defensive end Tyrunn Walker, whipping a Chiefs ball carrier to the ground and pumping his fist in celebration.

A native of New Iberia who played at Tulsa, Walker was active for all one game in 2012 but didn’t play a snap. His chances of making a meaningful contribution this season are again long, but maybe one play or series makes an impression with the Saints or another team.

Same for the young players swimming at the deep end of the Saints’ receiving corps.

Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Nick Toon are locks to make the team, and rookie Kenny Stills is close with his defense-stretching speed.

Courtney Roby should return on special teams, likely leaving one spot for players like Andy Tanner and Preston Parker to fight over. To see Tanner grinding for extra yardage after a catch to set up the Saints with first-and-goal in the third quarter is to see a player fighting to keep his dream alive of being an NFL wide receiver.

That fight continues next week as the games get closer and closer to being real.