Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Aaron Brooks: No. 2 in my heart

Count me among the Saints fans who remembers Aaron Brooks fondly. Drew Brees gets well-deserved credit for energizing the franchise, but it's easy to forget that Brooks, in his first year with the team, did the same thing.

I remember 2000 very well, which started as frosty as every year had been since the seventh week of 1993. Truth be told, I wasn't even watching that much then. Jeff Blake was the new (old) quarterback for the new head coach, Jim Haslett. They beat Ryan Leaf's Chargers and that was it for awhile. Then the Saints got hot, winning six in a row. Then Blake got hurt against the Oakland Raiders, and Brooks came in with a deer-in-the-headlights look. They lost that game, but not before Brooks quickly got over his jitters. Then they beat the defending-champion Rams the following week. Brooks was off and running. ESPN did a segment about how Brooks and Blake could coexist as a two-headed quarterback hydra, and I personally heard friends express excitement over Brooks as the future of the Saints.

Brooks then drove the Saints to their first playoff appearance in eight years. He threw four touchdown passes to help them win. For the first time ever. Against the defending Super Bowl champions, no less. 

In fact, I don't recall any concerted anti-Brooks angst until Dec. 1, 2002, when the Saints hosted the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (a game that I attended). Brooks put the Saints well ahead (though they ultimately won 23-20), bruising his bicep in the process. Haslett replaced him in the final drive with Jake Delhomme, a local favorite, who tossed a game-sealing first down to Joe Horn. Somehow, this led many Saints fans to believe that Delhomme should be starting instead. Many fans blamed Haslett's choice to stick with Brooks for that season's collapse, though really I think they just liked the idea of Delhomme as starter (his Louisiana roots being among the more polite reasons).

The hatred of Brooks really took off in 2005, when a certain something happened that completely uprooted the Saints in unprecedented fashion, and they finished 3-13. Brooks' career died off quickly and as undignified as possible in 2006, with the Raiders, just as Brees became New Orleans' neuralizer. 

I've always found that unfair. Had Brees not obliterated every past metric of Saints success, I think we'd be looking back at Brooks more fondly. Brooks remains, in fact, one of the best Saints quarterbacks of all time. The things people criticize about him are mostly unfair.

Yes, the Saints often collapsed during Brooks' tenure, but many of those were defensive in nature or otherwise weren't all his fault. 

Yes, he often laughed after bad plays, but I believe him when he says he did that to keep it light and to keep himself focused. That's often what I was thinking as I watched it happen.

And yes, he threw that backward pass once. But he threw many more forward passes, including the aforementioned four-TD playoff performance, and started off and helped finish the River City Relay (also a much-maligned play due to the missed extra point, but actually one of the best plays in football history).

Statistically speaking (and from my own recollections), Brooks generally played well in his games. He was far from perfect and never won any titles, but this is also true of many quarterbacks who aren't nearly as polarizing. And it isn't his fault that he was quickly overshadowed by possibly the greatest man ever to wear a Saints uniform.

I'm glad to see Brooks looking good and living well, and I applaud his induction into the Saints Hall of Fame. He deserves it for being the catalyst that he was when he marched into town. And he helped me rediscover my passion for the Saints. We should similarly rediscover the passion we once had for him.

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