FOXBOROUGH - Richard Seymour spent the previous two seasons getting by on God-given ability, guts, and guile. Injuries to his elbow and knee turned him into a diminished doppelganger of the dominating, disruptive defensive end he'd been since he entered the league in 2001.
Seymour has taken the frustrating experience of playing injured and turned it into a fruitful one. After listening to his body creak and moan for two seasons and listening to critics complain about his performance, he has gone from dormant to dominant once again.
"If you want to be a better player, you have to go through some things," said Seymour. "That's what I always said. I want to always be a better player than I was when I first came into the league, and I think you have to go through some stretches where you can't really rely on your physical ability.
"It was a more of a mental game. I had to do a lot of film study, know where the play was going and what to do, so I could just kind of be in the right position to make a lot of plays. Now, when you add the combination together, I definitely feel like I'm better now than I was before."
Entering today's game against the Seattle Seahawks, Seymour has a team-leading 7 1/2 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. With one more sack, the eight-year veteran will set a career high, surpassing the eight he had in 2003. His 53 tackles are already a higher total than he had in either 2006 or 2007.
He is a far cry from the player who registered no sacks or quarterback hits in three playoff games last season and drew criticism for not playing up to his pay grade after signing a four-year, $30 million extension in 2006.
With a $6.8 million cap charge this year and a $9.79 million cap charge in 2009, Seymour understands why some billed this as a make-or-break year.
But what boggles the defensive end a little bit is that people didn't understand that the offseason knee surgery that put him on the physically unable to perform list for the first seven weeks of the 2007 season left him physically unable to perform at his usual level. Or that he played the final 13 games of the 2006 season, including the playoffs, with a balky brace on his elbow.
"I'm not naive. I understand that it's a business," said the five-time Pro Bowler. "It's a production business, but at the same time I think if I wasn't healthy, there wasn't anything that I could do.
"I'm confident at the end of the day with the results, as long as I put my best foot forward, whatever I did, you know.
"My health was something that I couldn't control at that time. I feel better now than I ever have. I feel good. I've been doing a good job of taking care of my body. Like I said, I'm over my injuries."
That was obvious when the Patriots removed Seymour from the injury report Thursday. He had been listed with a knee injury.
But you don't need an injury report or Seymour's health homilies to know that he is feeling good. Just watch him in the trenches.
Earlier this year against the St. Louis Rams, Seymour simply lifted perennial Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace, tossing him to the side to make the play. It was the type of dominating display Seymour simply wasn't capable of the last two seasons.
"No, physically, I just wasn't able to get the job done, and like I said it's become fun again," said Seymour. "The last two years it's been work. Now, I actually enjoy playing the games because I can run around and do some of the things that I've been accustomed to doing since I've been here.
"I feel like I still haven't reached where I know I can get to as a player. With another good offseason of training and continuing to work out, I can get myself where I need to be. I feel like I've got a lot of good football left."
Seymour, 29, who will enter the last year of his contract next season, is hoping that good football comes in a Patriots uniform.
"I mean, New England drafted me. I enjoy playing here," he said. "I enjoy playing in front of the fans here because they're passionate. You go to some stadiums and it's not even sold out. It's a first-class organization.
"I have a really great relationship with Mr. Kraft and his wife, Myra, their family. I think we've grown to know each other well, and I've also made a lot of great friends here. So, if I had my way, I would retire a Patriot.
"Obviously it's a business, but I'm pretty optimistic that from my standpoint that's what will happen."
Say this for Seymour, he's not afraid to talk about what he wants to happen.
That was the case when he went on WEEI radio last Monday, in the wake of a 33-10 loss to the Steelers in which the Patriots allowed Pittsburgh to convert 8 of 16 third downs. Seymour said he should have been on the field more on third down.
"I said what I said. The coaches said what they said. I moved on from that," said Seymour. "Like I said before, I just think as a football player you always want to be on the football field, especially in crucial situations. I just feel like I can make a difference. I think everyone respects that. It ain't no hard feelings one way or another."
Feeling he can make a difference is something that Seymour, who was able to participate in the offseason conditioning program for the first time in two seasons, hasn't felt in a while.
That's why he is taking the relative little praise he's drawing for his play now the same way he took the cacophony of criticism he endured - he's tossing it aside like Pace.
His body and mind are telling him he's back. He doesn't need anybody else to do it.
"My philosophy is it's just about proving yourself week in and week out," said Seymour. "You're too inconsistent if you're worried about, 'Man, they're talking bad about me,' or it's, 'They're praising me now.'
"You play long enough, you're going to have some of it all. A lot of it was something I couldn't control. If you're hurt, you're hurt. That's just the bottom line.
"Like I said, I'm excited about playing football at a high level again. However you all want to slice it and dice it, that's cool."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org