Ahmad Brooks did just about everything the NFL can expect from a modern pass-rusher Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. On one of the game's most important plays, Brooks approached Drew Brees with the combination of ferocity and caution that should have allowed him to navigate the league's extensive rules to protect quarterbacks.
Brooks, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker, blew past New Orleans Saints right tackle Zach Strief and aligned his head behind Brees. To initiate contact, Brooks slammed his right shoulder into Brees' right shoulder, and to wrap up, he extended his right arm across Brees' chest.
Brees' upper body snapped back, including his head in a whip-like fashion. In the process, Brooks' arm slid slightly in the direction of Brees' neck.
The ruling from referee Tony Corrente: Personal foul against Brooks, whose slight slip of the arm had violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) -- which was amended last spring to specify that a penalty for a hit to the neck of a passer could be called even if the initial contact began below it. The penalty reversed a turnover and gave the Saints 15 yards on the way to a game-tying field goal. Brooks had hit neither Brees' head nor his knees, but he and the 49ers still feel victim to a technicality within the NFL rule labyrinth.
Did the play signify a turning point in the league's efforts to protect quarterbacks? Has it gone too far with its rules in the pocket? Is it unfairly penalizing hits like Brooks' when most quarterback injuries this season have resulted from scrambles or designed runs?
Speaking to reporters later, Brooks said he "basically bear-hugged" Brees and added: "That's just how football is played."
The NFL confirmed that sentiment, fining Brooks $15,575 for the play.
Brees, meanwhile, implied the penalty was justified because it was violent and left him with a bloody mouth.
"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees told reporters. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that … and again in real-time … You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the [arm is].' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"
Brees' reaction enraged earlier generations of NFL players, who saw nothing but a standard football play. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said on ESPN Radio that the penalty was an example of how "the NFL product sucks" and suggested that "roughhousing" is now illegal in the NFL.
Dilfer called Brees a "dear friend" but added: "You're not preventing Drew Brees from getting a concussion by making that call. You're preventing him from getting a bloody lip.
"I was insulted when he came into the presser and said, 'I expected to get the flag thrown.' I can't tell you how many retired quarterbacks texted me … We played a game where we had to stay in the pocket and get hit in the face. We're not saying we're as good as Drew Brees. We're not saying he's soft. We're not saying the guys he is playing with are soft. But part of the badge of honor of playing quarterback in the NFL was standing in there and taking shots in the face and throwing a 20-yard dig route. That's what separated you from the other guys. Now that's just not part of the game."
Has the NFL gone too far? Has it substantively changed the game even as quarterbacks find new ways to get injured? ESPN's NFL Nation asked quarterbacks and defensive players to address the topic.