Sunday, October 30, 2011 is a day Saints fans wish they could erase from their memory. The day of an inexplicable loss to the Rams that would have a reverberating effect on the season outcome. New Orleans and San Francisco would finish tied atop the NFC with identical 13-3 records, the tiebreak for the No. 1 seed going to the 49ers. The rest, as they say, is history. The second-seeded Saints would go on to lose a divisional round playoff game at Candlestick Park, instead of playing the 49ers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where they were an astonishing 9-0.
Boasting a 5-2 record, the Saints traveled to 0-6 Saint Louis. A week earlier, New Orleans had dismantled the hapless Indianapolis Colts 62-7 and a repeat performance was not far-fetched. By the end of the first half though, the Rams were leading 17-0, Drew Brees had been sacked three times and the Saints were on their way to a shocking 31-21 setback.
More troubling than the loss to an awful St. Louis team was the Saints offensive inefficiency, highlighted by the final number of sacks (six) and quarterback hits (nine) their usually reliable offensive line allowed. That afternoon, the Rams had exposed the weakest link in the Saints protective unit: second year offensive tackle Charles Brown.
New Orleans' regular starter at right tackle, Zach Strief, had been sidelined with a knee injury suffered in Week 3 against the Houston Texans. Brown was inserted in the starting lineup as his replacement.
Widely regarded as one of the best offensive tackles in the 2010 NFL draft, Brown was taken 64th overall by the Saints out of the University of Southern California and projected as the eventual heir apparent to Jermon Bushrod at left tackle.
The pick made sense: Brown had started every game at left tackle during his junior and senior seasons at USC. With the Saints' tendency to either trade or let their free agent offensive linemen leave only to replace them with their younger understudy, Brown's eventual path to the starting lineup seemed all but predetermined.
Brown's first opportunities to start came at right tackle however, as a result of Strief going down. It is not unusual for teams to break in their unproven offensive left tackles on the right side. After four starts against Jacksonville, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Brown had acquitted himself fairly well. The Saints gave up a total of only seven sacks in those four games, including a clean sheet against the Buccaneers.
On that ill-fated Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, it all came apart. Brown looked slow, tentative and overmatched. He allowed two sacks to Rams defensive end Chris Long, who would finish the game with three sacks and as many quarterback hits. To make matters worse, a hip flexor injury during the game put an end to Brown's 2011 year and he wouldn't start another regular season game for the Saints until week nine in 2012.
Besides his inconsistent play on the field, one of the biggest knocks on Charles Brown has been his inconsistent health. Going into his fourth season with the Saints, he has played in only 21 regular season games out of a possible 48. He finished both of the last two seasons on the injured reserve list.
The upcoming 2013 season brings hope of a new beginning of sorts for Brown. It also brings new competition. Jermon Bushrod left for the Chicago Bears via free agency this off-season and the Saints starting left tackle spot is up for grabs for the first time in years.
New Orleans, however, drafted offensive tackle Terron Armstead out of Arkansas Pine Bluff with the 75th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. They also brought in free agent tackle Jason Smith, a former 2nd overall pick of the Rams in 2009. Also in the mix, 2012 seventh round draft pick Marcel Jones out of Nebraska, who is recovering from a season-ending knee injury last year.
Vying for a starting spot at his natural playing position on the left side, the job would appear to be Brown's to lose. The odds aren't stacked against him either. In 2009, not many expected Jermon Bushrod to turn into a two-time Pro Bowler when he replaced injured starting left tackle Jammal Brown. Having previously played in only three games while starting none, Bushrod took over and never looked back. He started 14 regular season games and three playoff games for the eventual Superbowl champions. Charles Brown would love nothing more than to emulate such an accomplishment.