Rob Ninkovich tried twice to make it with the New Orleans Saints but failed.
At first, it appeared Ninkovich was the worse off for that. Then he earned a gig with the New England Patriots as an outside linebacker-defensive end hybrid, and his career took off while the Saints struggled on defense.
It seemed New Orleans coach Sean Payton’s staff had made a rare personnel blunder. Payton admits it’s given him nightmares that he let Ninkovich leave.
“The types of things that keep you up at night as coach (are) having a good football player like that right under your wing ... and not being able to take advantage of it,” Payton said.
Now, though, as the Patriots (4-1) prepare to square off against the Saints (5-0) on Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., New Orleans is armed with a defense that possesses the qualities the turnover-, sack-happy Ninkovich embodies. And the ink has barely dried on a big-money deal between Ninkovich and New England.
Both sides can live with the outcome.
“I have no ill feelings towards the Saints or towards Sean,” Ninkovich said this week. “I know that it’s a business, and I’m happy that I was able to get the opportunity to come here and play football for the New England Patriots.”
The Saints selected Ninkovich as a defensive end out of Purdue in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. Four players from that draft class still remain in New Orleans: safety Roman Harper, right guard Jahri Evans, right tackle Zach Strief and wide receiver Marques Colston.
But Ninkovich’s NFL tenure started much more tumultuously than his draft classmates’. He tore his ACL in the first quarter of what had been the greatest game in Saints history, the victory against Atlanta on the night the Superdome re-opened after Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans promptly placed Ninkovich on season-ending injured reserve. He attended training camp in 2007 but again hurt his knee and was waived.
Miami picked Ninkovich up and held onto him until the Saints re-signed him from the Dolphins’ practice squad in the middle of 2008. He attended New Orleans’ training camp in 2009, but the Saints told him his hopes of making the team hinged on whether he could beat out veteran Jason Kyle — at long snapper.
“It tells you how much I know,” joked Payton, who acknowledged the Saints didn’t have a vision for Ninkovich when they drafted him.
Ninkovich lost the battle to be the long snapper. The Saints waived him and won Super Bowl XLIV that year.
“Getting hurt didn’t help me,” Ninkovich said. “It set me back and, with the NFL being a business like it is, they’re just trying to get the best guys on the field that they can.”
It wasn’t all for naught. Ninkovich met his wife, Gretna native Paige Popich, in New Orleans, and he was claimed by the Patriots to plump up the bottom of their roster.
But he refused to be cast off as a camp body, and he became a zealous tackler on special teams. Coach Bill Belichick’s brain trust rewarded Ninkovich with a spot on the 53-man roster, and then they gave him more plays on defense as both an outside linebacker and defensive end, depending on the formation presented.
Since 2010, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ninkovich has 19.5 sacks, forced eight fumbles and, according to the Patriots, recovered more fumbles (11) than anyone else in the NFL. He scored his only touchdown so far off an interception return in 2011 and helped New England get to Super Bowl XLVI.
He recorded eight sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in 2012, all single-season bests for him. He and the Patriots fought their way to the AFC title game.
That same year, Payton was suspended following the bounty scandal, and a New Orleans defense that could hardly generate any pressure on opposing quarterbacks finished 25th in the league in sacks with 30.
The Saints didn’t create as many turnovers as they would’ve liked and surrendered the most yards in NFL history. Frustrated Who Dats watching a burgeoning Ninkovich battle for a Super Bowl berth with the Patriots were left wondering how he slipped away, how much of a difference he might’ve made.
Those sentiments have vanished. Under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the 5-0 Saints have racked up 15 sacks and 11 takeaways, and they’re allowing the NFL’s fourth-fewest points per game (14.6).
But the persistent Ninkovich is getting his due, too.
He’s a stalwart in a defense that’s giving up the league’s second-fewest points per game (14). In the final season of a two-year deal worth $4 million, he signed a three-year contract extension in September that reportedly could be worth more than $15 million.
Ninkovich apparently would have the chance this weekend to toast his achievements with his wife’s family. Her relatives arranged to travel to the game, and he expected to host them.
He planned to impose only one restriction.
“They’re staying at my house,” he said, “so I don’t think they can be in Saints gear.”
Ninkovich is comfortable with how things unfolded — just not that comfortable.