He was supposed to be Mike Vrabel. A scrappy defensive end who uses technique to compensate for lack of overwhelming size and athleticism. Someone to set the edge, maybe rush the passer here-and-there, and be able to plug in wherever he's needed.
Before Rob Ninkovich was supposed to be Vrabel, he wasn't supposed to be anything. He was a special teams player. A possible long snapper. Who knows. He didn't overwhelm, he didn't set the edge, and he didn't rush the passer.
But he plugged in and did everything that was asked of him and more. He learned, he developed, and he grew until he became that indispensable cog in the Patriots defense that's very success hinged upon how Ninkovich played.
I don't know if Ninkovich will ever receive the credit he truly deserves as a Stephen Neal type player on the defensive line. Neal was the Patriots long time right guard, who I oft maligned due to his comparative quality next to the other linemen. It wasn't until Neal was gone that I was able to appreciate the value he provided the team, and how great of a player he was.
Ninkovich is the same. He doesn't have the flash of Chandler Jones. He doesn't have the gravitational pull of Vince Wilfork. But Ninkovich was always good for a yeoman's day, contributing quality edge integrity to slow the run, pushing the pocket and providing quality pass rush, and dropping into coverage to help provide just a slight wrinkle for the defense.
What if I told you that Ninkovich ranks in the top 25 for most sacks in the league over the past three seasons?
What if I told you that Ninkovich has the 3rd most defensive stops in the entire league over the past three seasons?
What if I told you that Ninkovich has averaged over 1,100 snaps over the past three seasons, the most by a defensive lineman in the whole league?
Ninkovich has been a player that steps up when needed the most, and whether that means stepping up as an interim captain with Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork on the injured reserve in 2013, or getting one of his common game clinching sacks or stops, Ninkovich will do what needs to be done.
Except for this season. Ninkovich didn't look good. He looked a step slow, both physically and mentally- either letting the player one step out of his reach, or misdiagnosing his read. He looked lost in the Green Bay game and didn't look fully with it for the rest of the regular season. He wasn't consistent and the emergence of Akeem Ayers at the end of the season made it easy to clamor for Ninkovich to receive reduced snaps.
It was for the best, right? Ninkovich celebrated his 31st birthday on Sunday and it's only natural for a veteran over the age of 30 to monitor snap counts.
However, head coach Bill Belichick continued to praise Ninkovich's work on the field, and Ninkovich continued to play. And it all paid off when it mattered most.
There wasn't a single player on the field who played better than Ninkovich in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts. Ninkovich was stout, he was quick, he was decisive, he did his job and he made everyone else's job so much easier. He was overwhelming.
In the encore performance in the Super Bowl, Ninkovich wasn't playing at the same level, but he was still outstanding. He had a sack. He had a stop. He played every snap. He put in one of his traditional Ninkovichian performances and it was exactly what the Patriots had to have at the time.
Ninkovich didn't have the strongest season, but it's easy to say he stepped up when he was needed the most- and that might be the highest praise you can give him.
He isn't the fastest. He isn't the strongest. He isn't overwhelming. But he's there, giving his best, when his number is called, doing what needs to be done.