PHOENIX — Part of Rob Ninkovich is thankful for the time he spent in New Orleans.
If he ever falters as a defensive end, he now knows he has a skill he can fall back on as a long snapper. So he never has to worry about finding a job in another field. It’s like Patriots coach Bill Belichick often tells his players: “The more you can do, the better.”
“I just did it the other day,” Ninkovich said of deep-snapping. “I’m pretty good at it. But I can do more than that.”
Unfortunately, the Saints were unable to spot those other things.
Twice they had Ninkovich on their roster, and twice they let him go. During his first stint in New Orleans in 2006, Ninkovich played defensive end and received some snaps on defense, but he was released in 2007 after suffering a pair of knee injuries.
But the Saints weren’t the only team that couldn’t see it. After leaving the Saints, Ninkovich hooked on with the Miami Dolphins, serving as a reserve defensive end and outside linebacker, before returning to New Orleans after the 2008 season.
During organized team activities, Saints coach Sean Payton told him that if he wanted to make the team, he needed to learn how to long snap. Ninkovich put everything he had into learning the position, but was released on July 30 when New Orleans signed Jason Kyle to take his place.
“I got a taste of being able to play. I knew I could play,” Ninkovich said. “I was there and then I had a couple injuries and it took me away from what I wanted. It just kept happening to me. I just had to stay focused to get to where I want to be.”
The fact they missed on Ninkovich is something that still haunts Payton.
“So it tells you how much I know,” Payton said last year before New Orleans played New England. “Those are the types of things that keep you up at night as a coach is having a good football player like that right under your wing twice and not being able to take advantage of it.”
The Patriots signed Ninkovich on Aug. 2 of that year. After initially serving as a reserve, he’s developed into one of the team’s most important players, starting at defensive end, and has recorded 24 sacks over the past three seasons.
He’s the kind of playmaker that every team could find a spot for — especially someone like the Saints, who finished among the league’s worst teams in total defense. It just took someone having to first realize it.
“When Rob came here, he had to learn a few things,” New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “Looking back now, he’s a special player for us. He’s one of our leaders. ... He’s made a lot of plays for us to win ball games.”
To be fair, New England didn’t see it at first either. Ninkovich entered camp that camp as a long shot to make the roster. When the signing occurred, it was not trumpeted as a major coup in the papers or by the coaching staff.
Both Boston papers, the Globe and Herald, shrugged it off and said the team needed to find more pass rushers. Belichick explained the transaction by saying his team needed depth at the position.
In some regards, Ninkovich could be viewed as the one who got away from New Orleans. But in reality, he’s the one who got away from the 31 other teams. Anyone could have signed him when he was a free agent or off a practice squad. No one but the Saints, Dolphins, and Patriots decided to give him a chance. The believers were scarce.
But Ninkovich believed. He knew he could play, and that he was more than a long snapper. He just needed a chance. Instead of being bitter about his career path, he used it as motivation and was careful not to let the doubts about his talent and ability to stay healthy seep into his psyche. Those kind of thoughts can ruin a player.
“When you are constantly being told something that you don’t agree with, some people will start to believe it,” he said when asked his biggest takeaway from his time in New Orleans. “I didn’t believe anything they were telling me.”
After a long journey, Ninkovich can now believe what people are telling him. He’ll start in his second Super Bowl on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in Arizona, serving as one of the lynch pins of New England’s defense.
“Yes,” Wilfork said when asked if it’s crazy to think Ninkovich could have ended up as a long snapper. “Sometimes you got to find that diamond in the rough. I think we did that with Rob. He came and found a home.”
If all goes to plan, Danny Aiken will handle all of the long snaps. If he somehow becomes injured and an emergency situation occurs, Ninkovich could be pinched into duty.
But that certainly will not be the only way he touches the field Sunday afternoon.