Ninkovich's new role -- Pats playmaker
Unheralded LB can make an impression, sort of like another once-obscure No. 50
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As linebacker Rob Ninkovich lined up opposite Pro Bowl offensive tackle Matt Light in a one-on-one training camp drill in August 2009, the personal checklist of goals that accompanied him to the NFL seemed preposterous, quixotic, unrealistic.
Ninkovich was trying to hook on with the New England Patriots knowing he was perilously close to the end of his brief and unfulfilling pro football career.
His arduous path had included a number of crushing disappointments, among them back-to-back debilitating knee injuries.
Tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and his medial collateral ligament was definitely NOT on his checklist of NFL goals.
For three seasons he bounced between Miami and New Orleans, unable to impress either team enough to offer him a regular turn on defense.
Becoming a full-time long snapper was not on his checklist of goals either, but during New Orleans' OTAs (organized team activities) in 2009, coach Sean Payton informed Ninkovich his only future with the Saints would be handling that specific job.
"So what else could I do?" Ninkovich said. "I started long snapping every minute of every day. It was my only chance."
That opportunity was snuffed out when the Saints released him on the first day of training camp.
Then, on the second day, the Patriots called.
Asked why he brought the unheralded Ninkovich in for a look, coach Bill Belichick admitted, "We were kind of short at the position."
Ninkovich understood he needed to make an impression -- quickly. He was separated into a group of no-game guys just like him, long shots who were trying to figure out a way to distinguish themselves.
Some jockeyed opposite weaker players in hopes of dominating them in the one-on-one drill, but Ninkovich wanted no part of that strategy.
"I was thinking, 'Let me go against Light,'" Ninkovich said. "Let me go against the best. I wasn't interested in the third-string guy. How was that going to get me noticed?"
When offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia called out Light's name and asked for a defensive opponent, Ninkovich's hand shot up instantly.
"I just jumped in there," Ninkovich said. "You can do that, but if you do, everyone is going to be watching, and you better win."
Ninkovich had studied Light's technique, his tendencies. Light, an All-Pro selection in 2007, was also a Purdue alum. So, it was with great delight that Ninkovich barreled past the seasoned veteran on his first drill.
"So Scar says, 'That's a fluke, Matt, you can do better than that,'" Ninkovich recalled.
They lined up again. That time, Ninkovich said, he utilized a head fake to sneak out, then come inside of Light.
Scarnecchia, a tiny smile forming around his otherwise pursed lips, said, "Let's do that again."
By the time Ninkovich had slipped past the increasingly irritated Light for a third time, the head coach in the hoodie was watching, too.
"The next day, Bill used me as an example of how to pass rush," Ninkovich said.
Making an NFL roster WAS on Ninkovich's checklist of goals, a milestone he'd already reached with Miami and New Orleans. But this was different. After playing just eight games in three seasons, the opportunity with New England felt far more promising.
"They tried me in all sorts of different places," Ninkovich said. "I made it clear I was open to anything they wanted me to do."
Over the next two seasons, Belichick bombarded him with an array of responsibilities. Kickoff returns. Punt team. Goal line rushes. Rushing the passer. Jamming the tight ends.
"We've asked him to do so many things," Belichick said, "and he's really embraced all of those roles."
During his first season in New England, Ninkovich immersed himself in Patriots culture. He stayed late, studied film, learned from veterans Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi that when the team was given a day off, that really meant he needed to arrive at the stadium even earlier than normal.
"Rob was the guy that wanted to know everything," Bruschi said. "He asked questions about preparation, about technique, about conditioning.
"He was eager. He still is. You couldn't help but notice him."
Ninkovich appeared in 15 games for the Patriots in 2009 and submitted 14 tackles and a sack. He was solid, yet few prognosticators projected him as a key returnee in 2010.
But there he was last season, picking off his old team, the Dolphins, twice. There he was again, returning a fumble 63 yards for a touchdown against San Diego. He recorded four sacks, 58 tackles, three pass break-ups and 11 special teams stops.
"I started to feel more comfortable," Ninkovich said. "I felt like there was a place for me here."
He was used to biding his time. When no major program recruited him out of high school, he went to Joliet Junior College and helped that school win a championship. Ninkovich transferred to Purdue even though Ray Edwards (now of the Atlanta Falcons) and Anthony Spencer (Dallas Cowboys) were already there and entrenched at his position.
"People said, 'What are you doing?'" Ninkovich said. "I just figured I'd go in there and beat them out."
He didn't, earning just five starts in his Boilermakers career, even as he led the team in sacks his final two seasons.
"It's kind of how it's gone for me," Ninkovich said. "My whole career I've made plays subtly, just kept going, and then once the season was over, I'd look back and said, 'Hey, that was pretty good.'"
One of Ninkovich's checklist goals was to be a starter, and when the Patriots switched to a 4-3 defense in 2011, he was in Belichick's lineup as an outside linebacker and often lined up very much like a defensive end. Another season has produced still more "big play" highlights, including 6.5 sacks and two interceptions against the Jets and Mark Sanchez.
He is still learning, still making mistakes, like last season against Cleveland when he identified but did not react in time to a Wildcat play on his watch that resulted in Josh Cribbs handing off to Chansi Stuckey for an 11-yard touchdown.
In this year's regular-season win at Denver, it was Ninkovich that Tim Tebow shredded on his way to a rushing touchdown.
"I should have had him," Ninkovich said. "I thought I had wrapped him up for a loss, but he slipped away from me.
"After that play, I didn't want to go to the sidelines."
Last week, with the Broncos in town for the playoffs, there was Ninkovich crushing and strip-sacking Tebow to cause a critical fumble.
"That's the thing I like best about Rob," Bruschi said. "You tell him something once, and he fixes it."
Ninkovich reached another one of his checklist goals this season: play in all 16 games. He fell just short of one of his loftier goals -- to record eight or more sacks -- but figures there's still time to nail that one.
"People say Rob is a role player," Bruschi said, "but sometimes role players turn into stars."
As a former third-round pick who was also a defensive end-turned-linebacker, Bruschi understands how that works. He agrees with those who have compared Ninkovich to Mike Vrabel, another former Midwesterner who wore No. 50 for the Patriots and evolved from obscurity to stardom with his versatile skill set.
"He's been a very versatile guy," Belichick said. "Smart, hard working, tough kid that's really dependable ... he does a great job of doing whatever role we asked him to do."
The checklist is nearly completed save for a couple of personal goals and one very obvious team goal. Yes, winning a Super Bowl was on Ninkovich's mind all those years ago when, as a fifth-round draft pick, he drew up his list.
Should the Patriots get there, and should they win, Ninkovich has a chance to be elevated to the heights that Vrabel and Bruschi before him enjoyed.
"All those big plays you make along the way tend to be forgotten unless you make the season special," Bruschi said. "Only when you win it all do people look back and say, 'Man, that guy, he was incredible.'"
Being incredible was NOT on Rob Ninkovich's personal checklist.
But it wouldn't hurt to add it in time for Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Longtime Boston journalist Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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