With a little more than three minutes left and the New Orleans Saints driving, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks made the play of the game, a sack and forced fumble on Saints quarterback Drew Brees that was recovered by Patrick Willis.
With 3:12 remaining and a three-point lead, San Francisco’s defense had created the break the 49ers needed to get a much-needed win in a tough place to get one.
Except that the break didn’t come. Instead, there was a yellow flag on the Superdome turf. Brooks was flagged for a hit to the head and neck area, the Saints got 15 yards and eventually got a game-tying field goal out of that drive.
The Saints would eventually win the game 23-20 when Garrett Hartley kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired.
It’s not like the 49ers didn’t have chances to salt the game away. After taking a 20-14 lead on Phil Dawson’s 29-yard field goal with 13:23 remaining, the 49ers ran just six offensive plays—two straight three-and-outs—and contributed to their own demise with a completely unnecessary fair-catch interference penalty by Kassim Osgood on Andy Lee’s punt in the final two minutes. Instead of the Saints taking over at their own 25, they now moved out to their 40—just 25 yards or so away from a go-ahead field goal with one of the best two-minute drill quarterbacks in the game at the helm.
But at the same time, flagging Brooks for his hit on Brees is a prime example of how difficult the game is getting to be for defensive players. You can’t hit a quarterback low, that will draw a penalty. You can’t hit one high, that will also draw a penalty.
When you’re talking about a quarterback like Brees—who is 6-feet tall on his best days—the legal zone for a defender to aim for becomes something the size of a postage stamp.
Player safety is a noble cause and one that deserves the utmost attention. But flagging players for hitting a guy in the head … when he didn’t, in fact, hit the guy in the head is just dumb and it ought to be reviewable.
Not that the ability to challenge the play would have helped, since coach Jim Harbaugh wasted both of his challenges in the first half.
But officials are being instructed to throw the flag as the default position on plays that might or might not be penalties and, in the case of the 49ers on Sunday, that flag changed the game.
How long before we hear a referee intone over his microphone, “Personal foul. Playing defense. No. 99 on the defense. Fifteen-yard penalty and an automatic first down.”