NEW ORLEANS – He is Drew Brees, and with that name comes a measure of entitlement. Primarily that entitlement is protection from the men who police the NFL. They ensure he will not be subjected to the most eager, overzealous and violent of hits. When you are one of six quarterbacks in league history to throw for 49,000 yards, a flying tackle from a 259-pound man aimed high at your body is going to draw a penalty.
And that is the reality San Francisco 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks absorbed as he stood before his locker on Sunday night, his 15-yard roughing the passer penalty likely being the difference between a Niners win and a 23-20 loss to the Saints.
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Maybe he could have flown into New Orleans' backfield and gotten away with pulling the Saints' backup quarterbacks Luke McCown or Ryan Griffin to the ground, separating them from the ball with a forearm smash. But not Brees. Not when that arm was placed so high on Brees' body as to look like a blow to the neck or even the head.
"Yup," one Niners pass rusher mumbled when the question of the Brees star treatment was asked of Brooks.
Hit Drew Brees close to the head, you're going to get a flag.
Of all the plays in the most important NFC game on Sunday, Brooks' penalty was probably the most significant. San Francisco was clinging to a 20-17 lead with 3:18 left. The Saints had a third-and-2 on the 49ers' 35-yard line. Brooks pushed past tackle Zach Strief, using a move Strief had never seen from him before, then launched himself at Brees, hitting the quarterback somewhere near his head and dislodging the ball from his hands – a fumble that was recovered by the Niners' Patrick Willis.
With no penalty, the 49ers get the ball with 3:12 left and a three-point lead. But in flew the flag. A hit to the head and neck area referee, Tony Corrente said.
Brooks protested on the field. He protested on the sideline. And later, as he stood draped in towels in the San Francisco locker room, he protested to anyone who would listen.
"I mean I'm going full speed and he is going full speed, and at the last second he ducked his shoulder, you know what I mean?" Brooks said. "I mean I don't think I could have done anything differently. I mean I could have tackled him lower but I'm running around quick and coming around the corner and I'm there trying to knock the ball out of his hands because I'm thinking he's going to throw the ball, but then he ducks his shoulder."
He looked up.
"What did they call?" he said, referring to the officials.
Hitting Brees in the head or neck he was told.
Brooks nodded. He figured as much. But he wasn't buying it. He had hit Brees on the chest, he said. He hurled his forearm at a place right above the number and right below the neck. He made contact. He hit Brees hard. He knows that because he could read Brees' lips as he lay on the ground. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw a yellow flag on the turf and he knew the penalty was his.
"It was bs man," Brooks said as he stood in front of his locker.
This is the problem for pass rushers today. The NFL has become a quarterback league and the price for players who can break through the line and disrupt the best passers is huge. But the rise of the quarterback means the QB is all but packed in bubble wrap, protected by the officials to preserve his marketability.
Brooks' biggest complaint was that the league does a lot to protect offensive players but little to control the chop blocks delivered by offensive players that can threaten a defensive player's career.
"If you're going to protect everybody then they need to call the chop blocks too," he said.
But as unfair as his penalty might have seemed, the Niners earned their loss on Sunday. They got the ball back after the Saints kicked the game-tying field goal following the Brooks penalty and they did nothing with the opportunity. It took all of 18 seconds for them to run three plays – including a near sack in the end zone – to give the ball back to the Saints who sliced through their defense in less than two minutes to win the game on a last-second field goal.
The Niners of the last two years were more resilient than this current team. San Francisco has not found the way to win close games the way it did in the recent past. Last year's team would have gotten past the penalty. This year's could not. Sure the Saints got a break when the Brees fumble was nullified but San Francisco benefited from a questionable fumble after an interception that could have given New Orleans an early touchdown. It also was fortunate that the Saints' Lance Moore fumbled a punt on his 11-yard line, a muff that led to a field goal.
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Sometimes bad things happen.
Sometimes a hit that might not have drawn a flag against another quarterback will bring a penalty when the victim is Drew Brees.
Sometimes you have to understand this and still win the game.