Long-time NFL head coach Sean Payton announced his decision to step down from his role with the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday. He held his farewell press conference later that same day and among other things was also asked about the biggest regrets of his 16-year tenure on the job.
Needless to say that his handling of future New England Patriots standout Rob Ninkovich is one of those. Before becoming a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots, who registered 52 sacks over eight seasons, Ninkovich had two separate stints with the Saints.
“My biggest regret besides the Ninkovich debacle would be the double reverse against Tampa Bay,” Payton said. “We ran a double reverse against Tampa Bay in the four-minute and lost the game. Then, Mickey [Loomis] brought me a study on Ambien and its erratic behavior and mood swings with people.
“We got a lot of regrets, you know. I mentioned one of them. I wish I would have done a better job early on in my career with the media and hopefully I corrected that. But yeah, they’re always going to be personnel regrets, decisions. The double reverse, the Ninkovich decision. There’s a lot.”
A fifth-round draft choice by the Saints in 2006 — Payton’s first year as head coach — Ninkovich appeared in four games for the team during his rookie campaign. Unfortunately, injuries forced him to end the season on the sidelines and to also miss the entire 2007 preseason.
The Saints eventually waived the Purdue product and he was claimed by the Miami Dolphins. After spending 2007 and the early parts of 2008 in Florida, the defensive end again changed teams: the Saints signed him from the Dolphins’ practice squad to their active roster.
However, Ninkovich again failed to make an impression in New Orleans which led the team’s coaching staff to try to convert the then-25-year-old to long snapper. The move did not work out either and Ninkovich was released yet again. Three days later, he was signed by the Patriots and went on to become a cornerstone of two championship teams.
Payton has been haunted by that development ever since Ninkovich’s rise to prominence after the 2010 season.
“He is a good example of someone that we drafted and yet I don’t know if we had a real good vision of what we wanted to do with him,” Payton said about him back in 2013.
“And then it only gets worse because he’s back in the building a few years later and we have a second go at it, and we don’t capitalize on that. First off, he’s an extremely motivated player, hardworking, smart. He has all of those qualities that we look for. And 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.”
Three years after that, Payton again spoke about Ninkovich.
“There’s still regrets every time I see Ninkovich line up and sack someone for New England,” he said back in 2016.
Ninkovich announced his retirement after the 2016 season and his second Super Bowl win with the Patriots. Payton, meanwhile, won one title during his time in New Orleans.