Robert Kraft’s story of going from the metal bleachers as a season ticket holder in Foxboro to an expansive suite as the Patriots owner is one that’s long connected him to the people who fill his seats. And on Sunday night, like so many fans in New England, Kraft was looking for answers after his team’s loss to the Eagles, with a single question on the agenda: What in the name of Nick Foles happened to Malcolm Butler?
That is just how deep a secret the benching of Malcolm Butler was—the owner of the team didn’t know. And so goes another weird chapter in perhaps the weirdest season—and, certainly, after the successful last-ditch effort to retain Josh McDaniels, the weirdest week—of the Brady/Belichick dynasty.
By now, you know the rundown. Butler played zero snaps on defense in Super Bowl LII, after leading Patriots corners in playtime in 15 of 16 regular season games and both playoff games. He’d missed a total of six defensive snaps since Week 2 and played every snap in 12 of 16 regular season games and both playoff games. He hadn’t missed a defensive snap since the Raiders game in Mexico City on Nov. 19.
Despite all that, Eric Rowe started opposite Stephon Gilmore on Sunday night. The fifth defensive back was safety Duron Harmon, the sixth was safety Jordan Richards. When New England brought a third corner in, it was Johnson Bademosi, who was a healthy scratch just three weeks ago in the divisional playoff win over the Titans. Clearly, something smells here.
Full disclosure: I’ve heard conflicting things from different people, but little that could be confirmed. Butler arrived late to Minneapolis, which the team attributed to an illness, and word is that he wasn’t pleased with what would’ve been different role in the Super Bowl. Instead, he wound up with no role at all, outside of the single snap he took on the punt return team (which was the second snap he’d taken on special teams all year). What’s clear? The relationship between Butler and the Patriots has long since run its course. Here’s a look at how we got there:
• Coming off his Super Bowl XLIX heroics, Butler arrived late to organized team activities in May 2015. The team took the fairly drastic measure of shelving him for the next couple weeks of voluntary work.
• Butler was a restricted free agent last spring, and the team looked at the idea of including him in a deal to New Orleans for Brandin Cooks. Since he was an restricted free agent, Butler’s reps were able to talk to the Saints. So Butler had an idea of what his market value was.
• The Patriots did trade for Cooks, but it was the 32nd overall pick going to New Orleans, not Butler. So at that point, Butler knew not only his value to another team, but that his current employer was keeping him from reaping it.
• While all of that was going on, the Patriots poached Gilmore from Buffalo at a cost of $65 million over five years, with $32 million packed into the first two years of the deal.
• The Patriots played those same Saints in Week 2, which happened to be the week Belichick demoted Butler, snapping a streak of 38 consecutive starts (including playoffs). Butler played 49 of 65 snaps on defense in that one, the only game this year in which he missed more than three snaps.
And despite the steady work, there’s no question that Butler was far less consistent than he had been in making the Pro Bowl in 2015 and All-Pro in 2016. He told me as much last Thursday, conceding that 2017 had been a “s----y season.”
“Anything that happened to me is my fault,” he said. “It has nothing to do with anything else, it’s possible to just have a s----y season. It is what it is. I’m just worried about the Eagles.”
All of that history can’t be ignored. Still. Two years ago, Chandler Jones bizarrely knelt shirtless in the parking lot of the Foxboro Police Department during the team’s playoff bye weekend, blamed a bad reaction to medication, and wound up starting in the divisional playoffs days later. Wes Welker sat a series in the 2010 divisional playoffs for making foot-fetish jokes about Jets coach Rex Ryan, but wound up leading the team in catches that day.
And as for blowing curfew—which Butler denied in a statement released on Tuesday—if that was the case precedent suggests that the punishment would have been even more severe. Twice, Belichick has sent players home during Super Bowl week for that offense. Yet, Butler dressed for the game, and even got out there to hold up a gunner on special teams. But he didn’t play where the Patriots needed him—and needed him badly—which explains why he was caught before the national anthem, and why he was standing all alone smack in the middle of the bench area for much of the game.
As Foles and the Eagles tore up and down the field, Butler stood there. As it became clear that they were picking on Rowe, he stood there. As Bademosi and Richards struggled, he stood there.
After it was over, Butler popped up at the team’s postgame party. According to one person there, “Malcolm was back to [being] himself.” But clearly, this was a tough pill for him to swallow, and a hard one for everyone else to figure out.
Last spring, Belichick was the keynote speaker at Ohio State’s annual coaching clinic. In introducing him, Buckeye coach/Belichick friend Urban Meyer shared a life lesson he’d gotten from the Patriots coach.
“I’m always amazed how he takes these non-stars and makes them stars,” Meyer said. “He takes these players you haven’t really heard much about and all of a sudden they’re making great plays in the biggest games of the year. I started asking him about it and he made the point to me and I shared it with our team. He said, ‘At this point in my career, I want to coach guys I like. I want to coach guys I want to be around and that’s it.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to coach anybody else.’”
Three years ago, Butler was one of those players you’d never heard of making a play on the biggest stage imaginable. And in the two years after that, he became a star. Now? Evidently, Butler’s on the other end of the equation. And with his contract up, we’ll probably soon find out that Belichick doesn’t want him around anymore.
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