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Tuesday, 01 August 2017 13:08

What Bill Belichick's Words On Rob Ninkovich Reveal About What It Means To Be a Patriot - And What They'll Need From His Successor

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We've seen Bill Belichick be hard on his players, his coaches and his staff. We've seen -as recently as last week - Belichick take the media to task for questions filled with what he sees as a lack of understanding combined with an preponderance of assumption.

The Patriots head coach is demanding and is never afraid to break a few eggs to send the right message about how he wants his team to consume his message and execute in practice and in games.

But the other side of Belichick is a remarkably appreciative side. This was the side that was in full display Sunday as he and the organization said goodbye and thank you to one of the truly humble players in the last decade of Patriots dominance.

Rob Ninkovich retired from the NFL Sunday at the age of 33. He leaves the Patriots with two Super Bowl rings and three Super Bowl appearances. What he was able to accomplish over his eight-year run in Foxboro puts him among the most consistent and productive edge pass rushers in team history.

But as much as production is critical to staying on any Bill Belichick roster, so too is flexibility, reliability and adaptability. This is where Ninkovich quickly earned not just a place on the roster in 2009 but a rare spot in Belichick's football soul. Belichick's words to open Sunday's press conference confirm as much.

"Rob is one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached," Belichick beamed. "Like a lot of guys, he came in here very unheralded; [Tom] Brady, Malcolm Butler, guys like that and the guy he replaced, No. 50 Mike Vrabel. [He] didn’t come in with a lot of fanfare but just came in and worked hard and became a very, very versatile player for us. He played defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, all the kicking game, was our backup snapper. As a head coach or as a special teams coach, Scott [O’Brien] and Joe [Judge] will tell you that, things like that, just knowing you have a good backup long snapper really lets you sleep at night. Those are the kind of things that if it comes up in a game it’s critical. It might never come up but if it does – but that’s the kind of security that Rob gave us on everything, all the different positions defensively and in the kicking game. His versatility was really exceptional which is a tribute to his intelligence, his preparation and his overall skill set. Rob’s got very good playing strength. Maybe he got some of that when he was tossing those steel beams around in Chicago with his dad. But [he] worked very hard in the weight room, had very good playing strength, ran well, athletic and, like I said, all day tough and versatile. [He was a] team captain, one of the real leaders of the team. You can see the testament of everybody here what Rob means to all of us and what he’s meant to all of us. 

“Personally, [I] just can’t thank you enough for your contributions to the team [and] to the organization. I haven’t had a – never coached a more unselfish player and I’ve coached a lot of them but you go right up in there in that top echelon group. It was always about the team. It was always about how Rob could help somebody else. ‘What do you need me to do, coach? Do you need me to play here, play there, do something else? I can do this. I’ll snap, I’ll cover kicks, I’ll play linebacker, I’ll rush, I’ll cover. Whatever you need me to do.’ That was really very important to us in the last three years really starting with kind of that Denver game in ’14 where we became much more of a – we put a lot of flexibility into our defense with the linebackers rushing more and our defensive ends dropping more and Rob was really a huge, huge part of that transition."

All any first-year player - drafted or unsigned - coming into Foxboro needs to do is read those two paragraphs and you'll understand what it is Belichick is looking for in any football player. Being unselfish doesn't mean you don't look for your opportunities to make plays. Belichick knows that you need playmakers to turn games around. Dont'a Hightower's strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI for example.

Belichick has had as many game-changing defensive playmakers as any coach ever in NFL history. But Belichick is looking for more. This explains - at least in part - why Jamie Collins was traded to Cleveland. There has to be more in your arsenal than just making four or five plays a game, which Collins certainly did. But there also has to be a full commitment to the team and a willingness to do whatever the team needs whenever they need it.

Andre Tippett, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrable are certainly at the top of the list in terms of their popularity with the fans. But what Ninkovich was able to do after entering the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints in 2006 out of Purdue is remarkable.

“But after New Orleans, Miami, back to New Orleans, we’re sitting there in training camp in 2009 lacking a little depth at the outside linebacker position," Belichick recalled. "Nick [Caserio] said ‘There’s a guy, Rob, he should be on a roster, he should be in a camp and he’s available so let’s get him.’ Really, it’s just history after that. Rob came in and did a great job for us in the kicking game, started playing on defense the following year in 2010, was a regular player for us. [He] had the big game Monday night against Miami – two interceptions, fumble, made a very athletic play, made a great interception and we saw his coverage skill. It kind of just went on from there. Just year after year of production – sacks, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles. [He had] twenty-four forced and recovered fumbles in his career, the five interceptions – two against Miami, two against the Jets – then, of course, the Denver play where he got [Peyton] Manning on a crossing pattern, the strip sack against [Mark] Sanchez in overtime against the Jets. I mean we just go on and on and on. I mean there are so many big plays he made through the course of his career."

What Belichick truly appreciated was how hard Ninkovich had to work to land a spot on one of the best rosters in the league. He was waived four times and split his time with the Saints and Miami Dolphins from 2006 to 2008 and saw action in just eight NFL games.

Ninkovich spent the 2009 offseason trying to make the New Orleans team as a long snapper. He joined the Patriots on Aug. 2, 2009, and after playing mainly on special teams in 2009, he became a regular in the starting lineup, seeing action as a defensive lineman and a linebacker. Ninkovich started all 16 games for five straight seasons from 2011 through 2015. He became the first Patriots player since Hall of Famer Andre Tippett to record at least eight sacks in three straight seasons (2012-14). Ninkovich’s 14 fumble recoveries since 2010 are the most in the NFL over that span. His best statistical season was in 2013 when he started all 16 games and registered a career-high 93 total tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. 

Overall, Ninkovich played in 131 NFL games with 101 starts and recorded 425 total tackles, 46 sacks, five interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, 22 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and 28 special teams tackles. In addition, he played in 17 postseason games with 16 starts and finished with 64 total tackles, six sacks, one interception, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

"It’s with really mixed emotions that I stand here to congratulate Rob on just a tremendous, tremendous football and personal career and his personal contributions to the Patriots at the same time," Belichick said. "There’s certainly a degree of sadness in the way that we’ll miss him, although he’ll be around and be part of the team. [He’s] just a special, really special guy. 

“My relationship with Rob dates all the way back to Purdue when we scouted him coming out in the ’06 draft, right? He was a little bit of a ‘Was he a linebacker? Was he a defensive end?’ Well it turned out he was both and we missed him the first time around but we finally got it right. He’s Croatian so I knew he was tough. There was never any doubt about that. All Croatians are tough."

Kidding aside, Ninkovich's retirement leaves a bit of a void in the edge rushing position - at least in terms of established players in the system. Certainly, hybrid defensive lineman Trey Flowers and Hightower (whose health will be monitored closely) could help pick up the slack. Then there's 25-year-old Kony Ealy from Carolina. The Patriots are hoping that he and his personality fit in enough in his final year of a rookie contract to be the disruptive force on the outside that he was two years ago in Carolina.

There are rookies Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise, undrafted second-year end Caleb Kidder and Lawrence Guy.

The speculation is that the Patriots might even test the waters on 37-year-old unsigned free agent Dwight Freeney, seeing if a specialist four years older than Nink could fill a role similar to the very effective place Freeney found on the Falcons roster last year.

“So with a great deal of personal gratitude I thank you [and] Paige for your great support, performance, loyalty, dedication to this organization [and] our football team. You’ve had a tremendous career," Belichick added. "You’ve earned every single thing that you’ve gotten. Nobody gave you anything; nobody had worked harder for it. As a coach I’m extremely proud of what you’ve accomplished and you earned every single thing – all those sacks, all those forced fumbles, all those tackles, all those big plays. You got there with hard work and perseverance, dedication, preparation. All the things that we preach for our program, Rob epitomizes.

“Congratulations on a tremendous career. It’s been an honor to coach you. Thank you for your contributions to the Patriots and to me personally. Thank you.”