Former Patriots LB Rob Ninkovich had some words for Bill Belichick.
It would probably be hyperbole to say that the Patriots’ season hangs in the balance this Sunday against an injury-riddled 49ers team. However, it’s still as close to a must-win for head coach Bill Belichick’s side because falling to 2-4 in an AFC that’s deeper than it was in 2019 would really put their backs up against the wall for the rest of the way.
The Patriots are currently on the outside of the AFC playoff picture, but a win this weekend would catapult them right back into the thick of the race. That, of course, will be easier said than done as San Francisco is flush with dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Fortunately for Belichick, this isn’t close to the same team that finished 13-3 in the regular season and held a convincing lead in the Super Bowl in 2019. When you look at the 49ers’ talented offense, the Patriots should no doubt be game planning to contain the likes of world-beating tight end George Kittle and speedy wide receiver tandem Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
Speaking of the Kittle, Belichick couldn’t give him enough praise while speaking to reporters earlier in the week. However, the lengths he went to express his adoration for the 2019 All-Pro landed him in some hot water with one of his former players.
Former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN analyst Rob Ninkovich felt as though Belichick’s comments were an indirect shot at former longtime tight end Rob Gronkowski, who famously came out of retirement to force a trade to the Buccaneers to reunite with quarterback Tom Brady.
To give readers a full scope of the situation, we’ll start with Belichick’s praise for Kittle.
"“Kittle is a great player,” Belichick said during a virtual conference on Monday. “He does everything well. I’d put him right at the top of the league there, period. His ability to run, catch, get open, after the catch, block, he does everything at a high level. He’s as good as anybody that I’ve coached or as good as anybody that we’ve played against.”"
Belichick calling Kittle as good as anybody he’s ever coached obviously means that he’s putting him right up there with Gronkowski, a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro who holds a slew of records and has three championships on his Hall of Fame resume.
That’s not to take anything away from Kittle, who, in the eyes of many, has supplanted Travis Kelce as the best tight end in the league. However, we can also see why Ninkovich, who spent the final eight seasons (2009 to 2016) of his career with the Patriots, came away a little disappointed in Belichick.
"“I don’t get why he is doing that,” Ninkovich told WEEI on Thursday. “It seems like a little shot. It seems like a little jab … I just think it may be a slight little jab there, which seems a little unnecessary. But, Kittle is good. You can’t argue with the fact that Kittle is the best tight end in the game right now. I personally think he is. He is better than Kelce in the running game.“He can block, he’s tough. He has a little bit of craziness to him where if he’s going to get hit, he is going to jump up and scream a little bit. For me, I like him as the No. 1 tight end in the league right now. Best ever? It’s still Gronk to me.”"
While we don’t think that Belichick was crowning Kittle as the best tight end in NFL history, it’s honestly difficult to disagree with Ninkovich’s take on the situation. The coaching legend can think as highly of the 49ers behemoth as he wants, but did he really have to call him as good as anybody he’s ever coached at the TE position? Probably not.
Belichick has established a reputation for taking subliminal digs at former players (including Brady) and you’d be hard-pressed not to come to the conclusion that he was doing the same with his former all-world tight end here.