When Nate Ebner arrived in New England via the sixth round of the 2012 draft, Matthew Slater had already been on the Patriots’ roster for four seasons and established himself as one of the better special teams players in the NFL. For the eight seasons that followed, the duo would form the core of New England’s kicking game units — which routinely ranked among the best in football — both in terms of production and off-the-field leadership.
Last month, however, that core was broken up when Ebner decided to leave the Patriots in free agency. Following Patriots assistant coach Joe Judge, who had departed the organization earlier during the offseason, the 31-year-old decided to sign a one-year free agency contract with the New York Giants — leaving New England after 127 combined regular season and playoff gems, one All-Pro selection, and three Super Bowl wins.
His time with the team, however, left a lasting impression on the new Giant as he pointed out during his introductory press conference call with the New York media earlier this week (hat tip to Big Blue View’s Ed Valentine for the transcript). Ebner spoke in great length about not just what he took from his eight seasons under head coach Bill Belichick, but also about the lessons learned from his long-time teammate Matthew Slater.
“He’s one of the highest-character people I’ve ever met in my life, and he’s a great, great football player to boot,” he said. “I learned a lot from Matt coming in as a rookie. He was in his third or fourth year and already was a Pro Bowler. I just watched him work on a day-to-day basis [...] with a selfless attitude to do the work, to do it to the best of your ability, and whatever is asked of you, do it with a selflessness that puts the team’s priorities above your own.”
“That’s what Matt did forever. He was extremely consistent, and that consistency, over time, really speaks to who you are as a person. Matt was among the most consistent people I’ve ever met. I could go on and on about the things that I’ve learned and how we’ve grown together. Matt as a person, I could literally go on and on about that,” continued Ebner. “I have nothing but amazing things to say about Matthew Slater.”
Ebner singing Slater’s praises came just a few days after the 34-year-old himself spoke highly about his now ex-teammate. Slater, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Patriots before he was scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency himself, was asked about losing Ebner during a conference call with the New England media. And he too expressed nothing but admiration for his fellow special teams ace.
“I’ve worked more closely with Nate than any player on our roster over the last eight years, by a long shot,” Slater said. “I’ve spent more time in meetings, more time on the practice field with Nate Ebner than any player, maybe in my career. So, his value to what we did in the kicking game, it just was off the charts. It would never be something that gets talked about because there’s so many intricacies within the kicking game that get overlooked, but the things that he has done for our football team on and off the field over the last eight years have been tremendous.”
“I know personally as a player, no player has challenged me more, has pushed me more, has gotten more out of me as a teammate than him,” he continued. “I certainly thanked him for that when I found out that he was leaving, but I certainly am going to miss that. What he did for us as a communicator, you think of him almost as a third coach on the field. He did so much and he got guys lined up, he got guys on the same page, and he did it not only year after year, but week after week, day after day. I mean, he was so consistent in what he brought to the table. So, that’s going to be a big role for us to fill.”
How the Patriots will eventually fill Ebner’s role remains to be seen. Leadership from remaining veteran players such Slater himself will be key, but the same goes for production out of the team’s returning players or free agency acquisitions such as Cody Davis and Adrian Phillips. Either way, New England faces a tough task to find a running mate for Slater that has worked that well with him through all these years.
Ebner, meanwhile, is trying to import some of the lessons he learned with the Patriots to his new club — and continue the do-your-job mentality that helped the team turn into the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen.
“Whatever capacity they need me in, whatever I’m asked to do, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it the best I can,” said Ebner. “That, to me, is what I kind of watched in New England some great players do. That’s kind of a mindset that as a team, if we can all buy in together, then we’ll be in there playing for each other. That’s what great teams do, is play for each other. At the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s asked of me and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”