FOXBOROUGH - Unable to stay healthy, unwanted by not one but two franchises, Rob Ninkovich headed for New England 2 1/2 years ago, wondering whether the hourglass on his NFL career was down to the last few grains of sand.
Funny what can happen in a few short years. Signed by the Patriots on Aug. 2, 2009, as a failed long snapper with some untapped defensive skills, Ninkovich has authored a textbook tale of maximizing opportunity.
The last time the Ravens played the Patriots in the playoffs, Ninkovich saw the field on only a handful of special teams plays. When the Ravens return to Gillette Stadium this Sunday for the AFC Championship game, the 27-year-old linebacker might take a few special teams plays off, but not much else.
He is the poster boy for a maligned defense: Considered by some not big enough, fast enough, or good enough, Ninkovich has kept working and progressing, despite the skeptics. Now he is a win away from playing in the Super Bowl.
Safe to say he has exceeded expectations - both his and the team’s. It’s apparent the Patriots needed a player like Ninkovich. It’s even more apparent that he needed a team like the Patriots. It has been a perfect match.
“My expectations? I wanted to stay in the NFL,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to be out of the league, so I knew that this was one of my biggest opportunities I could ever have for staying in the NFL, because I knew I was close to getting out.
“I was almost out as a long snapper, so I came here willing to do anything, as long as I was playing.
“I knew I had all the skills to play in the league, but there’s a lot of luck and opportunity involved in playing, so I came here and was given an opportunity, and made it the best.’’
Taken by the Saints in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, Ninkovich bounced between New Orleans and Miami for the first four years of his career. Waived by the Saints. Claimed by the Dolphins. Waived by the Dolphins. Claimed by the Saints. Waived by the Saints. Two season-ending knee injuries and questions about where he fit in best - long snapper? linebacker? edge rusher? - hampered his cause.
He appealed to the Patriots, though, because they were looking for someone who could do a variety of things. A contributor initially on special teams, Ninkovich has steadily been asked to do more. Over time, he has become invaluable, playing more snaps on defense this year (980, according to ProFootballFocus.com) than any Patriot not named Wilfork, Arrington, or McCourty.
“He’d been with a couple different teams in the league,’’ said coach Bill Belichick, “and we felt that in our system maybe he had a chance to do more versatile things, rather than just zeroing in on one specific thing like rushing or covering, but a combination of those, plus playing in the kicking game, and he’s really done that.
“He’s contributed for us on first down, second down, third down, and fourth down since he’s been here. He’s been a very versatile guy. Smart, hard-working, tough kid, really dependable.
“He’s out there for us every day and works hard, does a great job of doing whatever role we ask him to do, whether it’s on the punt team or kickoff-return team or goal line or rush the passer or jam the tight ends. We’ve asked him to do so many different things. He’s really embraced those roles.’’
That’s not hollow praise from Belichick. The team gave Ninkovich a two-year contract extension back in September, a deal that will keep him in a Patriots uniform through the 2013 season, and pay him nearly $4 million.
Ninkovich reacted to the new deal by having his best season. He had a career-best 62 tackles, forced a fumble, recovered two, and was one of only two players in the NFL with at least six sacks (he had 6 1/2) and two interceptions.
The other? Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, who will be on the opposite sideline Sunday.
To many, Ninkovich’s rise from fringe special teamer to reliable defensive starter might be a surprise. To others, especially those who draw paychecks from the Patriots, it’s about finding the right player for the right spot.
“It’s all about development with players, and you see it time and time again in the New England system, players stepping up and taking those strides, and he’s one of those guys,’’ said former linebacker Willie McGinest, who spent 12 of his 15 seasons in the NFL with the Patriots.
“I think he’s a smart guy, he can make big plays, and he gets after it. He can rush the ball, he can drop into coverage.
“It just doesn’t happen overnight for everybody. If you look at what he’s done, he’s progressed every year, and Bill trusts him enough to give him that opportunity to go in there and play.’’
Said Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel: “With Rob, it was just a matter of opportunity. He came here and he took advantage of his opportunities and I think he’s improved on a daily basis. Rob takes a lot of pride in what he does and he’s got ability. He works at his craft.’’
He has been motivated to work when others would have abandoned the journey long ago. No Division 1 school initially offered Ninkovich a scholarship, so he went to a junior college. When he transferred to Purdue, the Boilermakers didn’t offer him a scholarship right away, and didn’t even have him playing defense.
Once drafted, failed stints with the Saints and Dolphins never damaged the dream, as dark as those days were.
He is here now, focused not on where he has been but on where he wants his team to go.
“You’ve just got to take every day as a great day to prepare for what you have to do on Sunday,’’ said Ninkovich, who turns 28 Feb. 1, the Wednesday of Super Bowl week. “I’m going to be excited to play Sunday, and I’m happy that we’re there, but the big picture is to win this game and be able to continue.
“You really can’t think about what’s beyond this game, because you have to win this game or else you’re not going to go there.’’