Rob Ninkovich is perhaps the quintessential modern New England Patriot. That’s an odd title to bestow upon someone whose teammates include Tom Brady, the greatest to play the game, but it’s a title that doesn’t speak to greatness. Indeed, it speaks to something bigger, especially since any team sport is always bigger than one player, coach, front office person or owner.
In Rob Ninkovich, you have the guy who was the perfect fit in this organization, and who thrived upon finding that perfect fit.
The Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001, led by Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Plenty of others have been key players at one time or another, some of whom will probably join Brady and Belichick in Canton one day (Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski) and others of whom are firmly in the Hall of Very Good (among the names that come to mind there are Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law). But this great run has also been built with the work of over-achievers like Troy Brown, Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich – players who, like Brady, were not all that highly-regarded coming into the NFL and became important players.
Ninkovich was a fifth-round draft choice out of Purdue, and he had two stints with the New Orleans Saints. That doesn’t sound like the background of someone who would ever be a key player, but he turned into just that. He became sort of a mini Bruschi, in that it seemed like he was often right there when a play was made. He might not have passed the “look” test, but he made plays.
The Patriots have made a living with players like that for over a decade now. And any winning team needs players like Ninkovich. The simple reality is that no team will be full of All-Pros; you need those players to win, but more importantly, you need players like Ninkovich and many others. You need guys who will fight for everything they have, who have had to work to earn ever job and every ounce of respect they have garnered from the opposition. Winning teams need players who aren’t all over the highlight reels but are in seemingly every play.
The Patriots, for as much as Brady and a few others have been stars, have largely won because of those guys. In fact, Brady doesn’t get enough credit for not having the kind of Hall of Fame receiver some other elite quarterbacks have had. He has not had a Mark Duper/Clayton, Marvin Harrison, Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice/John Taylor for very long. Sure, Moss was in town for a couple of years, one of which was a record-setting year, but that was it. Gronkowski has been an elite tight end when healthy, but he’s still only played for less than half of Brady’s career.
If anything, Brady has made other players big money, like Deion Branch and Wes Welker, who both left town to sign big money contracts. He’s turned receivers and tight ends into highly-valued players, aided by being on winning teams. Welker was basically an NFL also-ran before coming to New England. Julian Edelman has gone from afterthought to receiving star, largely on account of being versatile and as tough as nails – and with an assist from Brady.
It’s in that vein that Rob Ninkovich may be the quintessential modern New England Patriot. He retires having had a great run, and one few could have foreseen. He won’t be enshrined in Canton, but not many of the Patriots from the past couple of decades will be. The championships will live on, though, and Ninkovich retires with two rings.
The question for the Patriots is: who will take that mantle from him and have the title later on? The answer may not be too hard: there will be someone, because the Patriots of late always seem to find a player or three who rises up from afterthought to key player for a winning team.