St. Paul, Minn. • Former University of Utah cornerback Eric Rowe just hoped to salvage something from a potentially lost year during those long weeks in the middle of the New England Patriots’ schedule, when all he could do was wait for his groin injury to heal.
Rowe’s only thought: “I’ve got to get in some games before the season ends.”
Appearing in Sunday’s Super Bowl LII vs. his old team, the Philadelphia Eagles, will more than fulfill that wish.
Rowe is back as a valuable member of the New England secondary after missing October and November. He played about two-thirds of New England’s defensive snaps in the AFC championship game and made a critical tackle on Jacksonville’s final drive.
“He’s done a great job, just trying to battle through everything,” said Matt Patricia, the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. “He’s a guy that we rely on a lot for a lot of different things.”
Now comes Rowe’s shot at a second Super Bowl ring, with the nice coincidence of facing the team that traded him four days before the 2016 season opener. “I hope he plays good, for his sake,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “I hope he shows the Eagles they made a bad decision.”
Interviewed during Monday’s Super Bowl Opening Night at the Xcel Energy Center, Rowe said he’s thinking about the Eagles “just ’cause that’s who we’re playing, not like, ‘I want to get back at ’em.’ ”
That part is merely a bonus. Just like Utah’s red-tailed hawk mascot, Philadelphia’s costumed eagle is nicknamed “Swoop.” But that’s where the thread ends, because Rowe’s tenure in green didn’t work out well.
Rowe was drafted in the second round in 2015 when former Oregon coach Chip Kelly (now at UCLA) was operating the Eagles and liked to take Pac-12 players. Van Noy, then playing for Detroit, remembers Rowe being beaten by Calvin Johnson for two touchdowns as the Lions routed Philadelphia.
Kelly was fired after that season, and a new coaching staff that included defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz lost patience with Rowe’s development. Having fallen to fourth or fifth among Philadelphia’s cornerbacks, Rowe was traded for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft.
Much like Van Noy and other players who have joined the Patriots, Rowe has thrived in New England. “I’m really happy for him,” Van Noy said. “To see his confidence and his game get to where it’s at now, it’s impressive.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” said Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor, a USC product who was the team’s first-round pick in Rowe’s rookie class. “He’s a guy that worked very hard. He loves the game.”
Agholor caught 10 passes against Utah in 2014, but he was stopped on a fourth-and-2 running play and the Utes rallied for a 24-21 win. That victory was part of the Utes’ first winning record in Pac-12 play, with Rowe having switched from safety to cornerback.
Utes teammate Trevor Reilly, now a member of New England’s practice squad, wishes that had happened a year earlier, when the Utes could have paired Rowe with cornerback Keith McGill. The team’s lack of depth at safety prevented the move until Rowe’s senior season, giving him just enough time to learn the position and boost his NFL prospects.
“It was tough in the beginning,” said Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah. Rowe adapted, though, and performed well in a September game at Michigan, covering future NFL receiver Devin Funchess. Rowe soon joined a long list of Utes defensive backs who were attractive to pro scouts. “We do a number a things that they do in the league,” Shah said. “We play man coverage, we will press you, our kids on the edges are tough.”
Four ex-Utah defensive backs appeared in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs: Rowe, Tennessee’s Brice McCain, Pittsburgh’s Brian Allen and New Orleans’ Marcus Williams, whose memorable missed tackle enabled Minnesota to beat the Saints on the game’s final play.
Even so, the Vikings couldn’t beat Philadelphia and create a home game in the Super Bowl. Rowe enjoyed something resembling that opportunity last February in Houston, about 30 miles from his hometown. He did a respectable job against Atlanta receiver Julio Jones in New England’s overtime win, although Jones made one phenomenal catch against him. Rowe again helped the Patriots return to the Super Bowl this season.
Rowe’s tackle of Jacksonville’s James O’Shaughnessy after a short reception forced the Jaguars into a fourth-and-long situation in the AFC title game. Stephon Gilmore’s deflection then stopped the drive, giving Rowe one more game in a season that will last just long enough to satisfy him.
Counting another appearance Sunday by Eric Rowe, the University of Utah will have had nine active players in the past six Super Bowls:
Super Bowl XLVII • Baltimore: Ma’ake Kemoeatu, DL; Paul Kruger, DL; David Reed, WR; San Francisco: Alex Smith, QB
Super Bowl XLVIII • Denver: Zane Beadles, OL
Super Bowl XLIX • New England: Sealver Siliga, DL
Super Bowl 50 • Carolina: Star Lotulelei, DL
Super Bowl LI • New England: Eric Rowe, DB
Super Bowl LII • New England: Eric Rowe, DB