With the news coming that Rob Ninkovich plans to retire after 11 NFL seasons, my immediate reaction was “will the defense be alright without him?” He was been a mainstay of the New England Patriots defense this decade, a decade in which they have reached three Super Bowls. But my secondary reaction falls more along the lines of “in Bill we trust” as much of a homer and a brainwashed, used to winning fanboy as that makes me sound. Patriots fans have this inherent belief in the organization and the head coach because of guys like Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich played at Joliet Junior College before transferring to Purdue University, and was picked in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft. He bounced back and forth between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, and even attempted to convert to the long snapper position as a means of football survival before being released by the Saints in 2009. He did not record his first NFL sack until he was with New England.
Ninkovich was one of those pleasant surprise Patriots. I knew nothing about him before he was here, and my first reaction to him was “Who is this white guy who kinda looks like Mike Vrabel wearing Vrabel’s old number? He’s pretty good.” Vrabel was a favorite of mine and many from the run of Super Bowls in the early 2000s, and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2008 Bradyless Except For One Quarter Of One Game season. Ninkovich embodied Do Your Job.
Out of nowhere, Bill Belichick found a useful player where other teams could not, and found a younger, cheaper option to turn over an aging defensive unit. Rob Ninkovich is what the Patriots do, and moves like that are what has made them so consistently successful. For every Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, or Rob Gronkowski (who only fell to the second round because of very real injury concerns), there are a dozen humble beginnings guy, lower level prospects, and castoffs from lesser teams who find important roles with the Patriots from Tom Brady to Ninkovich to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman to Malcolm Butler to LeGarrette Blount to Alan Branch to Kyle Van Noy. Belichick is the master of filling out roster depth with competence at every position, and occasionally, that competence gets developed into greatness. Until he stops being able to do this, I have faith Bill Belichick can continue to do that. Call me a homer.
I can understand why Ninkovich would want to retire, even if I didn’t see it coming. He’s 33 years old, has injuries in his history, and plays a sport that maims everyone who plays it long enough. He can walk away now now with two Super Bowl rings and his head held high. Football is important, especially for guys who can play it at the highest level, but that it hardly the only important thing in life.
Unfortunately for Ninkovich, his second career as a rapper might already be over. He participated last week in Toucher & Rich’s Celebrity 98 Mile rap battle tournament, and got his butt kicked by Pete Frates in the court of online fan voting. Nobody can be good at everything.
The first piece of writing I published in 2016 was about the San Francisco 49ers, their decision to hire Chip Kelly, and Colin Kaepernick’s future. One day into 2017, Chip Kelly is out in San Francisco, the Niners rank high among the most incompetent franchises in all of sports, and Kaepernick is better known for leading a polarizing peaceful protest than he is for his play on the field. Looking back, it’s amazing how far Chip Kelly and the Niners fell together, but also amazing that I did not see it coming.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported early this morning that the 49ers have relieved head coach Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke of their duties. For Baalke, who has worked in San Francisco’s front office in various capacities since 2005 and has been their GM since 2011, much more of what has gone wrong with the Niners, while Kelly’s firing is more a part of the hard reset the team is poised to hit, and the next GM will want to bring in his own coach. Baalke was an instrumental part of making the 49ers respectable for the first time since the Jeff Garcia Era, helped draft and develop a very good defense, and was GM of a team that was a play away from winning the Super Bowl. Baalke was also the one who clashed with head coach Jim Harbaugh, who took the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games in his first three years, and who has reinvigorated his alma mater Michigan’s football program since leaving San Francisco. Baalke was the one who hired Jim Tomsula to replace Harbaugh, and when that one season experiment failed, hired Chip Kelly. All while San Francisco’s record was getting steadily worse, while the 49ers opened a new stadium in Santa Clara, while San Francisco/San Jose/Santa Clara was the host city for Super Bowl 50, and a franchise that won five Super Bowls was becoming a laughingstock. Things definitely needed to change.
This may very well be the end of Chip Kelly as an NFL head coach, with his demise almost as meteoric as his rise. Two years into the Chip Kelly experience, when he was still the offensive mastermind from the University of Oregon, it looked like Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles were the future of professional football. There were regular discussions on sports talk radio in Boston, both when Chip was at Oregon and in Philly, debating whether the Patriots should have Josh McDaniels be the head coach of the future when Bill Belichick eventually retires, or they should go after Kelly to be the coach in waiting. Kelly’s teams were exciting to watch, and Kelly himself was a fascinating figure to me. He was the guy from New Hampshire who developed this super-hurry-up offense and brought it to Oregon, putting up insane offensive numbers and employing a game-changing system of calling plays by flashing signs from the sideline to cut back on the time between offensive snaps, took the Ducks to a National Championship Game, appeared to be taking that system to the NFL by storm, all with Nick Foles as his quarterback.
After the 2014 season, when the Eagles had a winning record but missed the playoffs, Kelly gained more power over personnel decisions within the organization, and made a series of moves that I covered in more detail this time last year, but overall, while each move was individually defensible, it was too much change and too much turnover, and the 2015 Eagles fell on their collective face. The biggest impact move of the offseason was Kelly’s attempt to move up in the draft to acquire Marcus Mariota, and when he could not, trading Foles to the St. Louis Rams for Sam Bradford, while also bringing in Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow as QB options, and none of them being measurably better than Foles by all that much. Philadelphia fired Kelly, hired former Eagles QB and longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, and then drafted Carson Wentz with the #2 overall pick, and even though they missed the playoffs in 2016, have to feel good about the way they bounced back from Kelly’s final year.
Kelly, on the other hand, landed not in Tennessee, where he could have coached his former Oregon standout Marcus Mariota, but in San Francisco with a highly flawed roster and two flawed quarterbacks. I got the sense Kelly did not want want Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert, but that was the hand he was dealt. Kelly and Kaepernick, to me, seemed like a good match, an athletic, mobile quarterback paired with an innovative, up-tempo offensive coach, but the pairing came a couple years too late, when Kaepernick maybe had been hit too many times and Kelly may have failed too many times to make it work, as neither was operating with the kind of confidence they had in 2012 and 2013.
One angle to Chip Kelly getting fired for a second time in as many seasons is the fact that New England Patriots and former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount had a career year, and is running the ball as well as he ever has. One of my first football posts on this blog, back in 2013, was about Kelly and Blount, as Kelly was acclimating to the NFL and Blount was in his first training camp with the Patriots, and their shared history, when Blount ruined Kelly’s first game as head coach of Oregon by sucker punching an opposing player on the road in the Ducks’ season opener at Boise State. Given how short running back careers are, and how head coaches can last decades in the NFL, it’s amazing that Blount’s NFL career is now very likely to outlast Chip Kelly’s. The NFL is weird that way.
I have no idea what comes next for Kelly. As I alluded to in my Rex Ryan column last week (spoiler alert: the Bills fired Ryan after I wrote it, but before he had the opportunity to coach the Week 17 finale against the Jets), Kelly put himself in a no-win situation in San Francisco, and while the Oregon football program he was instrumental in building crumbled this season, culminating with the firing of Kelly’s former assistant Mark Helfrich just two years removed from their National Championship Game loss to Ohio State, the university did not wait for Chip Kelly to get fired by San Francisco to try and bring him back, hiring Willie Taggart away from South Florida instead. Kelly’s head coaching future appears to be at the collegiate level, unless he decides to bide his time and be an offensive coordinator for an NFL team for a few years, but the college and NFL hiring and firing cycles are different enough that he is getting onto the market at a time when the major desirable power conference jobs, Oregon, LSU, and Texas chief among them, have been filled already. Kelly bet on himself and his system, and I was rooting for it to work, but it did not, and now it may be a while before he is ever in such an important role again on the national stage, if it happens at all.
Andrew Luck has a great career ahead of him. He and Cam Newton became two of my favorite young players in football this season, and Luck showed us a lot with that big time comeback against Kansas City last week. He and his head coach, Chuck Pagano, will do great things together in the NFL before it’s all said and done, but not today. Not this year. On a day where two dome teams went on the road to play in the January rain, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were the ones to come out on top. I remember in the baseball playoffs in 1999, when Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox was set to start against Roger Clemens of the Yankees, that the match up was dubbed “Cy Young vs. Cy Old” and this game between Luck and Brady could have been promoted much the same way, except this time the old man prevailed over the young man.
It’s rare to see the Patriots run more often than they pass. It’s even rarer to see them score 43 points without Brady throwing a touchdown pass, but the 2013-14 Pats are nothing if not versatile. They had to be. Brady’s favorite targets of the last few years are out of the picture for one reason or another, and they had to get creative. Julian Edelman shouldered the load once carried by Wes Welker. The backfield of Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount replaced the production the Patriots were used to getting from the tight end position. Blount was the hero of the night, rushing for 166 yards and scoring four touchdowns for the home team. The undrafted former Oregon Duck, who was close to getting cut in training camp, has proven his value to the team this year more than Tim Tebow ever could.
The Patriots defense was impressive in this game as well. Alfonzo Dennard intercepted Luck twice: once at the beginning of the game, and once at the end. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower also had interceptions in the game. They didn’t make things easy for Luck. There always seemed to be a lot of pressure on the pocket, and while Luck did make some incredible throws, by the 4th quarter, the Colts really started to come apart. It was a good old fashioned kind of win. This is what Patriots football was when they Patriots were winning Super Bowls: tough and physical on both sides of the ball.
I realized this week that the rivalry with the Colts does not have the same venom it used to have. Peyton Manning is gone. Bill Polian is gone. Tony Dungy is gone. Jim Caldwell is gone. Dwight Freeney is gone. The old Colts were two finesse and too whiny for my liking. They were all flash and no substance. Jim Irsay is still the owner, and I’m still not a huge fan of his, but I could say that about the Red Sox’ and Bruins’ owners, as well and I love those teams. It’s really hard to hate this Colts team. They were everything the Patriots were not back then. Chuck Pagano is a great coach and a great human interest story. Andrew Luck is hard to hate, as are Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis. If they were playing the Broncos or any of the NFC teams this weekend, I would probably have rooted for them. This team is only going to get better. Andrew Luck had flashes of brilliance today, but there’s a learning curve for becoming a star quarterback. A Stanford education is only a starting point. Most QBs don’t shock the world by winning the Super Bowl in their second year the way Tom Brady did.
43-22 may seem like a lopsided game, but it was closer than that for most of the game. It seemed like whenever the Pats scored, Luck and the Colts would come right back with a few quick strikes down the field. If he stops turning the ball over, he will be tough to stop. When Reggie Wayne comes back healthy next year, he’ll have another good proven option to rely on. If he ever gets a better running game to work with than Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, then he’ll really be in business.
The season ends for the Indianapolis Colts and an illustrious broadcasting career ends for Dan Dierdorf. This was Dierdorf’s last game as a color commentator for CBS. He was always one of my favorite ex-athlete broadcasters, and before that, he put together a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals. Thanks for all the memories, Dan!
Tom Brady and the Patriots are back in the AFC Championship Game for the eight time since Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe. As fans, we shouldn’t take for granted the consistent level of success this team has accomplished, because it might never happen again. The game will either be in Foxboro against the San Diego Chargers or in Denver against the Broncos, depending on the result of tomorrow’s game.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Chip Kelly had his first game as a head football coach at any level. I remember watching it on ESPN in my college dorm room. After biding his time for nearly two decades as an assistant at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, his alma mater the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Oregon, developing an innovative and exciting offensive philosophy along the way, the Dover, New Hampshire native was finally getting his chance to be the man in charge of a football program. The highly anticipated 2009 season opener between Kelly’s University of Oregon squad and Boise State was a hard fought game where emotions ran high. Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount was let his emotions get the best of him that night, throwing a punch in a scrum after the whistle. The altercation got Blount suspended for the next ten games, and effectively killed his NFL draft stock. I’m sure that’s not how Chip Kelly envisioned his first game.
Kelly led the Oregon Ducks to a Pac-10 conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl against Ohio State that season. The following year, the Ducks played Auburn in the BCS National Championship game. By 2013, Kelly was one of the most desired candidates for NFL coaching vacancies, and he got his chance with the Philadelphia Eagles. This week, Kelly coached his first NFL game, the preseason opener against the New England Patriots in front of the Philly home crowd. On the opposing sideline was … you guessed it … LeGarrette Blount.
LeGarrette Blount will always be associated with the sucker punch in Boise regardless of what he does in the NFL. Despite getting reinstated by Kelly in time to play in the Rose Bowl, Blount’s reputation had been tarnished enough to make NFL teams reluctant to risk big money on him. After going undrafted in April of 2010, Blount agreed in principle to sign with the San Francisco 49ers, only to turn his back and sign with the Tennessee Titans. Blount got into another fistfight in Titans training camp, but that kind of thing happens all the time in NFL training camps. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher liked Blount enough to keep him on the practice squad, but before Blount could clear waivers, he was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the Bucs, Blount carved out a niche as a power runner on a struggling offense. During the 2013 NFL draft, Blount was traded to New England for former Florida Gators running back and Olympic Silver Medal winning sprinter Jeff Demps and a 7th round draft pick. Blount will be competing with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden for carries out of the Patriots backfield this season.
It’s interesting how two football careers are connected like that. The NFL preseason does not mean much for most casual football fans since the outcomes of the games are poor indicators of regular season results, but this is where someone like Blount needs to prove that he belongs on the Patriots roster and Chip Kelly gets his first experience building a game plan against an NFL proven tactician like Bill Belichick while also making evaluations of the Eagles roster to determine who makes the cut. Regular season football can’t come soon enough for some of us, but it’s interesting to see the process teams use to get there in July and August.