© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002
They are going to come after Aaron Brooks on Sunday. If Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Anthony McFarland get their hands on the Saints quarterback, they are going to twist him into a pretzel.
But if they are out to hurt Brooks, they are wasting their time. That already has been done. Physically Brooks is okay. It's his feelings that are battered and bruised.
Instead of relishing his status as arguably the Saints' most productive quarterback ever, Brooks enters Sunday's opener against Tampa Bay soured by a protracted contract dispute and fan criticism that pops up every season.
If he weren't putting up big numbers season after season, Brooks would understand. But the Saints offense had two of its best efforts the past two seasons under Brooks, ranking in the league's top 10 both times.
Despite the team's losing record in 2001, Brooks was the only quarterback in the league to throw for more than 3,500 yards, rush for more than 350 and throw 26 touchdowns, earning an alternate spot on the NFC Pro Bowl squad. His 4,190 total yards are the most in team history.
Yet, Brooks can't seem to get the Saints to pay him what he thinks he's worth -- even after holding out briefly at the start of training camp this season.
They essentially have agreed on a six-year deal with $10-million in guaranteed money. The holdup has to do with average pay per season. The Saints' offer is for $5.4-million per season, while Brooks wants $6.2-million, about the league average for the top 10 quarterbacks.
Word is, if a deal can't be worked out by Sunday, both sides will wait until after the season to revisit the issue. Brooks is scheduled to make $450,000 in base salary this season, tying him with Washington's Shane Matthews as the second-lowest paid starting quarterback in the league and paying him less than Saints backup quarterback Jake Delhomme ($563,000).
Fans and media also have taken shots at the fourth-year quarterback this preseason, picking at everything from his footwork to his mechanics. Never mind that he was 27-for-51 for 313 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Last season, television commentators at Raymond James Stadium chided Brooks for smiling on the sideline while the Saints were being clobbered by the Bucs 30-0 en route to 48-21 loss. Others pointed to his 22 interceptions and his 50 sacks.
Why all the criticism? Brooks wants to know.
"It happens no matter what I do, and that's a shame," he said. "I have improved in every area that the coaches have wanted me to improve in. The offense is looking a lot better. I've been doing what I've been asked to do.
"I don't know what I've done to people to have them feel that way about me. I'm just going to continue to work as hard as I've been working and continue to get better."
Brooks may fall into favor with fans if the Saints rebound from last season. Instead of contending for the postseason as expected, they did a swan dive down the stretch, losing their last four games by wide margins to finish 7-9.
Because of his position, Brooks will be credited for the team's successes and failures. Coach Jim Haslett likes how his 26-year-old leader has handled the pressure and discord that has come with the contract dispute and the criticism.
Brooks' teammates are behind him as well. This week they designated him team captain.
"It's kind of what Terry Bradshaw went through in Pittsburgh, and it was the same with Kordell Stewart. That's what it's all about if you're a quarterback," Haslett said. "You've got to be able to survive and handle all of that, and I think Aaron is doing a great job. He's not really showing his emotions on the field, and he's handling the situation as a professional."
Brooks is expected to be his usual self Sunday -- dangerous as a passer and as a scrambler, the type of versatility that often gives the Bucs trouble. This time, though, the Bucs say they have worked extensively in the preseason on containing mobile quarterbacks and will be more than ready for Brooks.
"He's no different than any of the seven other quarterbacks we're going to face this year -- the Kordell Stewarts, the Donovan McNabbs and the rest of them that move around," Sapp said. "We've just got to get ourselves geared up. We've done it all offseason, preparing ourselves to play the mobile guys, and if we can keep them in the pocket, we can kill them."
For Brooks, that would be one more headache to add to those he has gotten from critical fans and a frugal Saints management.
"I don't pay that stuff any mind. I really don't," he said. "It's a shame it has to be like this. Maybe one day they'll come around, but I've got to be me, you know? It ain't no big deal to me, you know?"