Sean Payton made plenty of shrewd decisions during his tenure as New Orleans Saints head coach. His handling of Rob Ninkovich was not one of them.
Before Ninkovich became a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots, he played two stints under Payton in New Orleans. The first was marred by injuries that limited him to three games over two seasons. In the second, the Saints believed changing his position to long snapper would be the best way of maximizing his talents.
It was not. Ninkovich failed to win the long snapper job ahead of the 2009 season, and Payton cut him.
Three days later, the Patriots signed him. Within a year, he was a defensive starter. Ninkovich went on to start 101 games for New England (plus 16 more in the postseason), recording 46 career sacks and 88 quarterback hits and earning a spot on the Patriots’ All-Decade Team for the 2010s.
Payton knows he screwed up in his evaluation of the defensive end/outside linebacker. In a news conference Tuesday to announce he was stepping away from the Saints, the 58-year-old said “the Ninkovich debacle” was one of his biggest regrets from his coaching career.
Payton also listed a failed double reverse in a 2007 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as another moment he’d like to have back.
“There are always going to be personnel regrets, decisions,” Payton told reporters. “But the double reverse, the Ninkovich decision — there’s a lot.”