Since Bill Belichick took over the New England Patriots, two players have worn the number 50. First, it was Mike Vrabel redefining versatility, then Rob Ninkovich following in his legacy. The significance of this is that both guys represented the ideal player Belichick looks for when stocking his 53-man roster.
First Mike Vrabel, Then Rob Ninkovich. Who Will Be The Next Number 50 For The Patriots?
From 2001 to 2009, it was Vrabel, a recent Patriot Hall of Fame nominee that epitomized the Belichickian way. He was the heart and head of three Super Bowl champion defenses. Defenses that included several other Patriots and NFL Hall of Fame candidates. Vrabel’s career stats were remarkable in and of themselves, but the special part to him may have been his supreme versatility.
On many of goal-line offensive plays, Belichick inserted the sure handed linebacker as an eligible receiver. Despite the fact they fooled no defense when he lined up at tight end, he tallied ten regular season touchdowns, and another two in the postseason. Some of Tom Brady’s own receiving corps didn’t see the ball as much over the years.
He inspired dedication and dominance in his teammates, playing a large factor in many of the team’s crucial victories. His performance in Super Bowl XXXVIII provided the complete snapshot of him as a player, as it included a touchdown reception in addition to two sacks. When Vrabel moved on in 2009, he was leaving behind quite the legacy.
Vrabel’s absence meant someone needed to step up and lead a defense of young, inexperienced players. Ninkovich joined the team the same year Vrabel left, donning the same number 50. But it wasn’t until his second year with the team that he solidified his role. After impressing the coach with his hard-nosed yet selfless play on special teams, Ninkovich found himself becoming a playmaker at multiple positions the next season.
Pats fans at the time were unsure of many of the players on the young defense. Age and free agency led to the end of the defense with such a Super Bowl pedigree. Plus, New England focused far more of their cap space money on offensive weapons for an aging Brady. But work horses like Ninkovich helped solidify the young, but improving defense that would constantly draw comparisons to the fearsome and decorated units of the decade prior.
Fitting the System Like a Glove
To truly compare Ninkovich and Vrabel, just read these two Belichick quotes on each player. When interviewed back in 2009, Bill Belichick said of Vrabel, “Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player. Toughness, intelligence, playmaking, leadership, versatility, and consistency at the highest level.”
When asked at the recent retirement press conference about Ninkovich, Belichick said, “His versatility was really exceptional which is a tribute to his intelligence, his preparation, and his overall skill set…[He was a] team captain, one of the real leaders of the team.”
Belichick had nearly the same thing to say about both guys in quotes nearly a decade apart. The fact remains that the player wearing the number 50 has been the perfect Belichick defensive football player for 15 years. Both men embodied everything about whatever slogan the team was touting at the time. They were “the Patriot way” and they always “did their job”.
Next Man Up?
It’s unlikely the Patriots retire any number but 12 after this dynasty is said and done. But Belichick seems to find a few minor ways of saluting a departing player of great merit. When a particularly special player leaves the team, their jersey number won’t be given to just anyone. I’ve always found this a cool way of honoring greatness next to retiring the number altogether.
With the success over the last fifteen years, the Pats could retire the number of dozens of players. But doing so would leave the current roster having to wear triple digits on their jerseys.
So Ninkovich’s recent retirement forces the question: Who will be the next man up to fill that “Patriot Way” prototype? Who is worthy of the proverbial or actual number 50? Defensive captains Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty have been leaders alongside Ninkovich over the years, so they’ll be auditioning for the right guy to replace him.
Will this season be a showcase of sorts for Trey Flowers, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin or Kyle Van Noy to emerge? Does Belichick have his next number 50 in mind outside the team? Either way, this Patriots defense is still pretty stacked even with Ninkovich hanging it up. It will be fun to see if the next guy wearing number 50 can live up to the legacy.