PHOENIX » The New England Patriots reached the Super Bowl with Patrick Chung as their starting safety, which might seem like a cruel joke in Philadelphia.
In March 2013, the Eagles signed Chung away from New England hoping that he could help solve the team’s ongoing issues at safety. In one season, Chung further contributed to those issues. The Eagles released him after the first season of a three-year, $10 million deal.
He resurfaced in New England and earned a roster spot, a starting spot and ultimately a contract extension. He has established himself as a key piece in the Patriots’ rebuilt secondary while the Eagles are still trying to solidify their group. So what changed?
"I mean, I’m not hurt," he said Tuesday at Super Bowl media day. "I wasn’t injured [this season]. Just being more calm. Being calm about things. Letting the game come to me instead of forcing it. Just trying to be as consistent as possible. Not try to make all the big plays, but just make my plays."
Health was a key factor. Chung injured his shoulder early in the 2013 season. He missed two games, tried to return, and then missed two more. Earl Wolff replaced Chung in the lineup. After Wolff hurt his knee, Chung rejoined the starting secondary, but he was not the same player he was before the injury. Chung spoke little about it publicly, but the nerve issue in his shoulder appeared to affect his performance.
Even when he was asked about the injury Tuesday, Chung would not revisit how it impaired him with the Eagles. He stopped at noting the difference between playing healthy and hurt.
"I’m not going to talk about that — that’s over," Chung said. "Last year is last year. Things happen. You put it in the past."
Chung also had an injury history during his first stint in New England, which lasted four seasons. This is the first time since Chung’s rookie season in 2009 that he has played all 16 regular-season games.
Chung’s resurgence is not just the by-product of improved health. In fact, the Patriots did not even try to re-sign Chung even though he had started 30 games for them in four seasons. He had a forgettable 2012 campaign with the Patriots and lost playing time because of injuries and inconsistency.
But when he returned to New England this season, he found an improved secondary around him. The Patriots added cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Devin McCourty has matured into one of the NFL’s top safeties. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, and Duron Harmon are consistent contributors in the defensive backfield, too. There is less of a burden on Chung.
It’s different than the Eagles secondary of Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, and Nate Allen — all in a new scheme, and none of whom had played with one another before. That was the situation Chung entered in 2013.
"It frees up other players to do different things," Chung said of the supporting cast. "It definitely helps, man."
In 2013, Chung was rated among the bottom quarter of safeties by the website Pro Football Focus. This season, he is rated as the NFL’s 12th-best safety. He has played the fourth-highest total of defensive snaps on the Patriots.
"They just bring the best out of you," Chung said. "Bill [Belichick] brings the best out of you. He’s going to put you in the right position and you just have to be able to execute and do it on a consistent basis. That’s kind of our bread and butter, just do your job and trust that the person next to you is going to do it."
Safeties coach Brian Flores said Chung has "matured a lot" in his return to New England. McCourty said that Chung benefited from a different perspective. All Chung had known in his career was the Patriots’ defense and culture. He was exposed to a different system with the Eagles and a new environment.
Chung told the Boston Globe earlier this season that he learned "the grass isn’t always greener," and emphasized Tuesday how much he appreciates playing for the Patriots. The appreciation seemed to grow after his failed tenure in Philadelphia.
"Just life lessons — things happen. You have to be able to bounce back from it," Chung said. "I love it here. I never wanted to leave in the first place."