FOXBOROUGH — Rob Ninkovich was the spiritual descendent of Mike Vrabel, right down to the No. 50 on the the uniform.
The truth of the matter is if you want to win in the NFL, you need guys like Vrabel and Ninkovich: smart, durable, cost-effective individuals who are willing to do just about anything to succeed. And when Vrabel was dealt away prior to the start of the 2009 season, the Patriots were in need of that same sort of type: an edge rusher who could also play multiple spots and hold strong against the run.
In Ninkovich’s case, he was a street free agent. Available that August, he confessed Sunday that he was near the end of his rope when he flew into New England for the conditioning test — not unlike Vrabel’s confession that he was considering law school before he got a call from Bill Belichick in 2001.
Ninkovich passed the conditioning test, and eight years later, he managed to carve out a niche as a foundational element for the New England defense, leaving a legacy of durability, versatility and production.
"Personally, I can't thank you enough for what you did for the team and organization," said Belichick, speaking directly to Ninkovich during an emotional press conference after Sunday’s practice.
Ninkovich, who appeared taken aback when he walked into the media workroom for his announcement retirement and saw almost the entire roster present as well as the media, delivered an emotional address where he thanked friends, family and teammates.
However, he saved his final acknowledgements for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Belichick.
"Coach, I gave you everything I had. I hope it was enough,” he said to Belichick, who was sitting on the floor watching the announcement. “I love this game. Thank you."
It’s easy to see why Belichick would get emotional talking about Ninkovich, as he checked off all the boxes Belichick looks for in a player:
Durable: His consecutive games played streak reached 116 — one of the longest in the recent history of the league at defensive end — before a suspension sidelined him at the start of the 2016 season. He reminisced on Sunday about something Bill Parcells told him when he was with the Dolphins: If you’re in the trainers room, you’re not going to be a part of the team.
Versatile: He played multiple positions, including inside and outside linebacker, as well as defensive end. (Eventually, I simply gave up trying to classify his spot, and starting referring to him as an edge defender.) Whether he was getting after the passer, setting the edge or dropping into coverage, he was a jack-of-all-trades type who could be counted on to do whatever it took to lead the team.
Smart and productive: Ninkovich was rarely, if ever, out of position, and through 2011 and 2012, seemed to have a knack for coming up with the big play at the most important time. (After one particularly impressive outing against the Jets, Belichick referred to him as “Jet Killer.”) Between 2010 and 2011, there were just two guys in the league who combined for at least four interceptions and 10 sacks: Ninkovich and Clay Matthews.
In the end, Ninkovich won’t necessarily be the first guy mentioned when the great Patriots’ teams of the 21st century are discussed. But, like Vrabel, he stands as the embodiment of everything the franchise looks for in a player, a smart, tough individual who was a perfect fit for the system. If the next No. 50 leaves half the legacy that Ninkovich and Vrabel did, the franchise should be thrilled with the results.
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