HOUSTON - The last thing Eric Rowe was thinking when the Eagles traded him just days before the season was that this year's Super Bowl would be played in his hometown and that he might actually be playing in the 51st version. The cornerback's thought process was in the here and now:
Wow, I got traded, that stinks.
But I'm going to the Patriots.
And if Bill Belichick sees something in me, I must not be that bad.
Rowe is here, though, and not just as reserve. He has played an important role in New England's defensive resurgence, in spite of the Eagles' decision to give up on him after just one season.
"When I got traded I was kind of surprised," Rowe said on Monday. "But at the same time I was like, 'OK, this is a new shot, a new opportunity.' I was like, 'If Bill sees something in you, shoot, he sees something in you.' So I tried to make the best of it and now five months later I'm in the Super Bowl in my hometown.
"That's just like surreal."
Rowe is still one game away from claiming a championship, but there was certainly a sense of déjà vu during media night. A year ago, it was offensive lineman Evan Mathis who was playing in the Super Bowl after the Eagles had released him. Former coach Chip Kelly was behind that decision, and Howie Roseman was behind this one, but even the Eagles executive recently admitted that maybe he was having second thoughts.
"To say that we don't go back and think about [decisions] and think about if we were right, I mean that's part of it you know?" Roseman said a week ago. "You want to hit as many as you can, but when you're watching games of other players that you had here, that's the hard part about doing it."
Still, when the Eagles and Patriots were negotiating in September, Rowe was fifth on the depth chart. He was struggling to adapt to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's new ways. And when Belichick offered a 2018 fourth-round draft pick - that could still become a third-rounder if Rowe plays more than 50 percent of the snaps in 2017 - Roseman jumped.
Rowe said his father, Nelson, told him of Roseman's recent comments. He agreed that he was low on the depth chart, but he didn't agreed with the notion that he wasn't a scheme fit.
"I was making mistakes but nothing like getting beat deep like constantly," Rowe said. "It wasn't like I was out of shape. I was making plays in camp and getting better. And I kept sliding down [the depth chart] and I didn't understand why. But I had to just keep on working because some opportunity might happen here or you might get traded."
When Rowe arrived in Foxborough, Mass., he said that Belichick told him, "I've been having my eye on you since last year. We thought you'd be a good fit." Rowe had his best game as a rookie against quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Belichick, though, said on Monday that he had been aware of Rowe long before that game. He said that the Patriots did all their usual pre-draft evaluations of the Utah product and liked his versatility – Rowe played safety, cornerback and special teams – his tackling ability and length (6-foot-1, 205 pounds).
"When he was available, we were able to work out a trade with Philadelphia," Belichick said. "We felt it was a player that we wanted to work with and he had some position flexibility and some skill. He's come in, he's worked hard and he's picked up our system."
An ankle injury kept Rowe out of the lineup in the Patriots' first five games, but he started to play regularly in Week 6 and ultimately started in 7 of 9 games. Rowe said there was adjustment period – the Patriots use different terminology and have different practice methods - but he said the scheme is very similar to Schwartz's.
The Eagles "told me that I didn't fit the scheme or something," Rowe said. "The scheme was mostly just [man-to-man] and Cover 2. I think that was maybe just some excuse they made up. I don't know the real reason why."
Belichick, who had once employed Schwartz with the Browns, said that there were changes and that the systems differed.
"We asked him to do some things that [were] maybe a little bit different than what he had been doing," Belichick said. "I think Jim Schwartz is one of the best coaches in the league. I have tremendous respect for Jimmy. But we've all been this – some systems fit some players better than others for whatever reason."
Some of Rowe's former teammates, like cornerback Nolan Carroll, had said that he thought Rowe's personality might not have been what Schwartz was looking for at the position. Schwartz has often talked about the importance of confidence at cornerback.
"I'm just a laid back dude," Rowe said. "But it's not like I was laid back on the field."
The Eagles cornerbacks, of course, struggled almost the entire season. Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks and rookie Jalen Mills were inconsistent throughout. Rowe said that the Patriots win for good reason.
"They do the little stuff consistently," Rowe said. "We did it in Philly, but sometimes we would get off track and that's how mistakes happen. Here the guys that have been here for years – their leadership is doing the little things over and over again."