In his 12th NFL season, Haloti Ngata made his first trip to season-ending injured reserve.
He tore his biceps in the Lions’ fifth game last season, and for the first time in the defensive tackle’s career he would play fewer than 12 games in a season. For some 33-year- olds, especially one who has seemingly done it all, an extended break from football might be the nudge to finally retire.
For Ngata, who has won a Super Bowl, been to Pro Bowls, and earned tens of millions of dollars, the time away only reinforced his desire to return for a 13th year.
“I feel I have a lot [left],” Ngata said. “I didn’t want to finish my career on IR. That just lit the fire more for me to play.”
But Ngata was to become a free agent this offseason. The NFL decides more than players when it’s time to call it quits. Ngata said that when it came to retirement, he has approached the idea on a year-to-year basis, for “probably two or three years now.”
The league, though, typically has room for 6-foot-4, 340-pound defensive linemen who can clog running lanes and run down quarterbacks. And before Ngata’s injury, he showed that he was still capable of doing both. He might not have been as dominant as he was with the Ravens, but the Eagles wanted him for good reason.
And the Lions, despite a new coaching regime and a scheme change, wanted to keep him, as well. But Ngata preferred to play in a 4-3 defense, he longed to win another Super Bowl, and more than anything, he wanted one more taste of football.
The reigning champions gave him those opportunities.
“I love the game,” Ngata said Thursday not long after he signed a one-year contract with the Eagles. “I love a locker room, getting to know the guys. And I love everything about football – the studying, the dog days, just film watching, workouts, everything. I love it. Just now I couldn’t imagine myself without it.”
The Eagles have made a habit of acquiring established veterans on one-year deals – in name or otherwise – over the last two offseasons. The tactic worked splendidly last year with defensive end Chris Long, cornerback Patrick Robinson, and wide receiver Torrey Smith, for example, developing into key cogs.
The addition of Ngata and defensive end Michael Bennett, whom the Eagles got in a trade with the Seahawks, follows a similar formula. Both are former winners – Bennett won a Super Bowl in Seattle – and both are scheme-specific players who are possible one-year rentals.
Salary-cap restrictions now and next year, when Carson Wentz will likely receive a franchise quarterback extension, have forced executive Howie Roseman to be creative, but bringing Ngata and Bennett to an already formidable defensive line indicates that the Eagles aren’t messing around.
Bennett will essentially replace Vinny Curry, who was released Friday, and Ngata will take the place of third defensive end Beau Allen, who signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent. The cap savings are marginal, but on paper the Eagles have seemingly upgraded.
The 32-year-old Bennett and Ngata aren’t the players they were in their primes, however, and they’re both older – approximately eight years and three years – than their predecessors. The Eagles hope that fewer snaps will benefit the aging linemen.
Ngata missed only five games to injury during his nine seasons in Baltimore, but injuries to his calf, shoulder, and biceps sidelined him for 16 games over his last three years in Detroit. He said that he’s now strengthening his biceps after post-surgery therapy. The Eagles flew him to Philadelphia for a physical – he eventually passed — before a deal was officially struck.
The Lions reportedly offered the same amount — $2.6 million – but new coach Matt Patricia is expected to implement a multiple front that has linemen perform a variety of functions, and Ngata wanted to continue to play in an aggressive system.
He started his career playing mostly as a two-gap nose tackle, but he successfully made the transition to one-gap football in Detroit, and there aren’t many linemen who would rather read-and-react than play downhill. Ngata will likely play relatively the same amount as he did in Detroit because of Jim Schwartz’s rotation, but he’ll back up starters Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan.
The Eagles’ personnel department knows Ngata well. Joe Douglas was in Baltimore when the Oregon product was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, but it was Andy Weidl – Douglas’ second in command – who scouted the West Coast for the Ravens.
“I feel like I didn’t have to sell myself,” Ngata said, “because they knew what they were getting.”
Ngata was the silent type in Baltimore, but the Ravens hardly ever had to worry about him off the field — until he was suspended four games in 2014 for using the banned substance Adderall. The Ravens traded him the following offseason.
Ngata, who is a second-generation Tongan American, has endured greater challenges. In 2002, his father, Solomone, was killed when a commercial truck he was driving for work slid off an icy freeway ramp and flipped. Just over three years later, his mother, ‘Ofa, died during dialysis treatment.
A Morman, Ngata said his faith helped him cope and learn how to share his emotions.
“I express it more now than when I was younger,” Ngata said. “I would just hold it all in.”
Ngata, who was the Lions’ 2017 nominee for the Walter Payton man of the year award, said that he has tried to follow the example of one of his heroes, Reggie White. He wore No. 92 for his first 12 years in honor of the former Eagles great, but that number is retired. He said he’ll wear No. 94 instead.
“I loved the way he played, but mainly the man he was off the field,” Ngata said of White. “Very [humble], God-fearing man. Just love him. He’s a great example and that’s what I wanted to be.”