Rob Ninkovich was one of three New England Patriots captains to hold a pre-training camp press conference on July 23, 2014. And as far as the defensive end was concerned, his meeting with the media went quite well. Perhaps even as well as guard Logan Mankins’ and safety Devin McCourty’s.
Bill Belichick didn’t think so.
“I was in the cafeteria getting breakfast and he walks up to me,” Ninkovich, who retired this July, recalled Friday on WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni & Fauria. “He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ I had no idea what he was talking about.”
Well, as it turns out, New England’s head coach was talking about one particular response to a question that remains in the Patriots.com transcript archives.
Question: Specifically on third down, I don't know how much you researched it, but if you did in the offseason, what stood out to you?
Answer: We've got to get off the field. That's huge. Some of the third-and-long situations, we weren't able to get off the field. I know third-and-long screens hurt us last year, too, so specifically that play and the third-and-long situation as a whole, we've got to do a better job. Obviously, everything is working together, so coverage-rush, rush-coverage all works together. That's just one area that we definitely need to work on this year.
Not exactly ground-breaking information. But it was a little more information than what was required. A simple we-need-to-work-on-all-phases kind of response would have probably kept Belichick happy with the then-30-year-old Ninkovich, who’d started all 16 games the previous three seasons while amassing 22.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and two interceptions.
“I thought everything was cool. I didn’t think I said anything wrong,” Ninkovich told WEEI. “A reporter asked me what was one of our biggest issues [in 2013], and I said third-and-long screens. I mean, because other teams had converted like eight third-and-20s on just screens, so instantly it popped in my head. We can’t let that screen happen.”
But what was done was done. Like another misdirection pass to the flat against an overpursuing front.
“[Belichick] comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Why don’t you just tell everybody what our biggest issue was last year?’” Ninkovich detailed. “I was like, ‘Well if it happens again that’s an issue. Why not state it?’ Let them try it. If we can’t stop it then that’s our problem. If they were somewhat of a smart team they would see that last year we got our asses kicked on screens. It’s not a very hard thing to look at and say, ‘OK, what did they suck at?’ It’s right there. It’s glaring.”
The way Belichick made an example of No. 50 was, too.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but you know, he called me out in front of the team,” said Ninkovich. “He did it behind the scenes, and then he did it in front of the whole team.”
Belichick passively told the rest of the locker room, according to Ninkovich, “’Why don’t we just go out there and tell them what we suck at?’
“OK, Bill. I think they know we sucked at that. And then, hey, that year we didn’t have any problems with that.”
The Patriots didn’t let those screens happen often during the Super Bowl XLIX season of 2014. The defense got off the field as Ninkovich, now 33, had hoped, going from a 27th-ranked 42.6 percent conversion rate on third down to a 14th-ranked 38.4.