By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- Rob Ninkovich was a punch line in a Patriots jersey.
His presence in New England seemed only a symptom of the Adalius Thomas problem. Was the relationship so rotten between Thomas and his team that a discarded Saints long snapper, a Miami practice squad cast-off, would be a step up?
Not even Bill Belichick was aware of Ninkovichs potential.
I dont really know what our expectations were when we got him, the Patriots coach admitted. We had an extra spot, so we brought him in and he started playing and took advantage of his opportunities. So, he carved out a special role for himself and Robs gotten better over the two years that hes been here.
When we first got him, it was kind of a last-minute thing get a guy in here for training camp and all that. There wasnt really a lot of preparation put into the signing other than by Nick Caserio and Jason Licht and our personnel department, they got who they felt was the best player available at that position.
And look whos laughing now.
Ninkovichs fifth season in the NFL has been his best. The linebacker has 45 tackles and 17 assists, 4.0 sacks and two interceptions in 16 games for the Patriots. Hes started 10 games, including a Week 4 New England win over his old team in Miami. That night, Ninkovich sacked Chad Henne and recorded his first two career interceptions.
In the regular season finale against the Dolphins, Ninkovich beat his chest a little bit with four tackles -- three for a loss -- two sacks and a fumble recovery. If there were still any doubts about Rob Ninkovichs role, they can now share the casket with Miamis season.
Those who know him best arent surprised with his recent success. Mark Hagen, who worked with Ninkovich as a defensive coach at Purdue, believes it was inevitable.
Rob is probably one of the hardest workers Ive ever been around, Hagen said. Ive been in college football for 15 years and I can probably only put one other guy in his category in terms of how hard he works and how hard he plays. Hes the type of guy that never takes a down off and you cant really say that about a lot of players.
Hes had some adversity here and in the years leading up to his time in New England, but none of his accomplishments surprise me, knowing the type of guy he is. Theres nothing thats going to stand in his way. Once he sets a goal hes going to find his way to reach it.
His chance arose in 2009 with some help from another player's fall from grace. Thomas was reaching the apex of unhappiness in New England. The linebacker clashed with his coach, refusing to admit that his lessened role reflected decreased productivity. An especially poor performance in the Patriots Week 5 loss to Denver was rock bottom for Thomas. Ninkovich saw opportunity.
Last year I was just doing the special-teams thing all year, whatever I could do on defense, Ninkovich explained. Obviously, I was excited; AD was the guy. I was just patiently waiting to have an opportunity to get out on the field. I think Denver was my first play and it was a sack so it was pretty cool.
Even performing as a stopgap, Ninkovich was encouraged. But hed been there before.
When Rob was a senior we had two other really good defensive ends, Hagen said. We had three great players for two positions. The other two guys who played with him were juniors. Both of those guys are starting in the NFL. One is Anthony Spencer, who starts at linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. The other is Ray Edwards, who starts at defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. So you had three future NFL guys for two spots and those guys were the starters. Rob never complained. He knew he was going to play; we played all three guys, but he was really the backup.
Probably around midseason Edwards just wasnt getting it done, wasnt very productive, and Rob replaced him as a starter and really flourished down the stretch. In fact, in his final game against Indiana -- a rivalry game -- Rob had four sacks. He never complained once, he just came out to practice every day, knew what he was capable of doing. In the back of his mind, he knew he could have been a starter but never once changed the way he approached each day.
That mindset predates college.
Staying positive in the face of adversity has long been his attitude. It's what kept him afloat when bouncing between practice squads in New Orleans and Miami. The source? His family. In the Patriots locker room you can catch a glimpse of the St. Christopher's medallion that hangs, always, around his neck. His grandmother gave it to his father, who wore it while serving in the Vietnam War and then eventually passed it along to his 18-year old son.
My parents have been huge for me, Ninkovich said. They've taught me a lot about my work ethic, everything that goes along with sticking to something and never quitting. I can remember going out for wrestling. I hated it. After the first practice -- I was in eighth grade -- I hated it. After the first day I had to wrestle this big chubby kid and I said 'I'm not doing this anymore. I can't do it.'
But I finished the whole season. I didn't quit. I went all the way to the rest of the year. Once I start something I'm not satisfied until I officially am able to end it; until the season's ended or I'm completely satisfied with what I do.
With the Patriots, he's found himself in the perfect place for overachievers. Danny Woodhead, Kyle Arrington and Gerard Warren are players whose careers have hit an upswing in New England this season. They can be filed among the Belichickian tradition of plucking diamonds from the rough, or honing them from coal: Wes Welker, Tom Brady, Dan Koppen, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi . . .
That's one thing that Coach Belichick has really been able to do in building some of the great teams that he's had, is take guys who may be under the radar but who fit his profile of being willing to work hard every day, be willing to pay the price," Hagan said. "I think he's found a guy like that in Rob Ninkovich. He knew Rob could play on his feet, that he had some athleticism about him; a guy who could play hard every snap, who could play special teams."
When he got picked up by the Patriots I thought to myself, 'There's no better place for him because of the system that's in place there and what Coach Belichick has done with similar guys.' ''
Mike Vrabel is one.
When Ninkovich showed up in New England, comparisons with Vrabel were reflexive. They share the linebacker position, the No. 50 and something like a crew cut. The rest, though, were unfairly born of a damn high standard: Vrabel was a defensive staple of the Patriots Super Bowl-winning teams. He was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro selection. He was a fan favorite. Its no wonder that some were so quick to dismiss Ninkovich.
But go back to the beginning. Vrabel was stuck in Pittsburghs special teams purgatory for four seasons. He didnt start an NFL game until he was 26 years old and playing for the Patriots.
Just like Ninkovich.
Its just a mentality of, you dont ever want to be outdone, Ninkovich said. I'm always working hard; I'm trying to get the most out of what I have.
What hes gotten is a steady job as a playmaker for the New England Patriots. And theres nothing funny about that.