Vargas: Aaron Brooks worthy of selection to Saints’ Hall of Fame

Advocate file photo by Patrick DennisFormer quarterback Aaron Brooks guided the Saints to their playoff win in 2000.
Advocate file photo by Patrick DennisFormer quarterback Aaron Brooks guided the Saints to their playoff win in 2000.

For a brief time before Minneapolis enraged New Orleans’ collective conscience on Tuesday by beating out the Crescent City for the gig to host the 2018 Super Bowl, it was Aaron Brooks who primarily drew the ire of Saints fans.

The ex-Saints quarterback had been chosen for induction into the team’s Hall of Fame — and he had the audacity to show up to a news conference and express his thanks for the honor! In the middle of the day for everyone to see!

To the slightest of degrees, at least initially, such a reaction is understandable (very mildly). The Saints failed to qualify for the playoffs five of the six seasons that Brooks was the signal-caller, after all.

Who can forget that pass he threw backwards to tackle Wayne Gandy during a defeat at San Diego on Nov. 7, 2004, which resulted in a fumble, lost 23 yards after a New Orleans recovery and set up a punt on fourth-and-33?

Who can forget Brooks’ 84 interceptions and his 59 fumbles (23 of which were lost) with the Saints, and how he smiled seemingly after each and every one?

The answer is very few.

But forgetting is one thing. Forgiving is another.

And, almost nine years since his last snap in black and gold, it’s time to forgive Brooks for the bad times, congratulate him on the good ones and let him enjoy a distinction he earned fair and square.

Brooks’ 120 touchdown passes and 18 game-winning drives for the Saints from 2000 to 2005 rank second only to Drew Brees. His 19,156 throwing yards trail only Brees’ 38,733 and Archie Manning’s 21,734.

In his first year, Brooks threw four touchdown passes in the team’s first playoff win, a 31-28 nail-biter at home against St. Louis. That night he became the first quarterback to ever eliminate the defending Super Bowl champions in his first postseason start.

Brooks had already helped the Saints beat St. Louis once earlier that season, in his first start in Week 13 in place of the injured Jeff Blake. Just two quarterbacks in NFL history before him had led their teams to wins over the reigning Super Bowl champs in their first league start.

A few weeks later, he guided the Saints to what was only the second division title of their existence.

Ultimately, that was Brooks’ peak. Critics explained that away by saying he was too aloof and didn’t possess the leadership qualities required of a true franchise quarterback. There might be some truth to that. One episode especially illustrates this.

It was 2005, when the Saints finished 3-13 and didn’t play a single game at what is now called the Mercedes-Benz Superdome because Hurricane Katrina had badly damaged it that August.

Brooks gave an interview on a pregame show one week and excoriated the NFL for moving what should’ve been the Saints’ first home game that season to East Rutherford, N.J. He criticized team owner Tom Benson for relocating the organization’s operations to San Antonio, where practices were on high school fields and parking lots.

Those were all sentiments the populace in New Orleans had voiced amidst the frustrations and anxieties in the wake of the storm. But Brooks’ effort to relay them fell flat.

He was lashed verbally for allegedly not sounding like the leader of a football team and for supposedly complaining too much when his circumstances were not as adverse as those of other Katrina victims.

“People didn’t know what was happening on a play, and they didn’t know anything about me, and yet they were criticizing me,” Brooks told media Tuesday while reflecting on his tenure with the Saints. “I tried to do things the right way. I tried to uplift people the whole time and to get that type of criticism was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ That stayed with me a long time. I guess I just didn’t take it well.”

Regardless, the facts and the math are cold and simple. Three quarterbacks — Manning (1988), Billy Kilmer (1990) and Bobby Hebert (1999) — were enshrined in the team’s Hall of Fame without the numbers Brooks produced or the credentials he possessed.

None of them won a playoff game. Hebert was the lone member of that trio to play for a division winner.

Brooks is the first to acknowledge he accomplished whatever he did with heaps of assistance.

“A lot of guys contributed to the success I had on the field and off the field,” Brooks said Tuesday. “I’m not accepting just on my behalf; the teams … deserve just as much credit.”

Certainly, it did Brooks no favors that he was succeeded in New Orleans by Brees, his San Diego counterpart on the day of the backwards pass.

After joining the Saints in 2006 alongside coach Sean Payton, Brees has gone on to be the only NFL player to pass for more than 5,000 yards in four separate seasons and in more than one campaign.

He has taken the Saints to their only Super Bowl triumph; their two NFC Championship Games; three of their five division titles; and half of their 10 playoff appearances.

But few players in pro football history — let alone in Saints annals — can rival what Brees has done.

As far as Brooks is concerned, though, this isn’t the Pro Football Hall of Fame we’re talking about. This is one that has now memorialized more than 40 players who managed unique achievements or offered an unprecedented level of on-field production while representing the New Orleans Saints, whose finest moments for the most part have occurred in the past eight years.

The team’s Hall of Fame selection committee got this one right, folks. Brooks belongs in that number.