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Super Bowl Drama Still Hanging Over the Patriots in Training Camp

The decision to not play Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII is still hovering over the Patriots, but the defense knows they can’t dwell on it. Can the team continue to plow through the AFC, as it has done for the better part of a decade?

WHAT: New England Patriots
WHEN: Friday, July 27
WHERE: Foxboro, Mass.
HOW: This one’s a drive for me, down Rte. 3, out Rte. 44 and back up I-495.

Another year, another detrimental call in the Super Bowl following around the NFL’s runner-up.

In 2015, it was Pete Carroll putting the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands, rather than Marshawn Lynch’s, with the game on the line. Two years ago, it was Cam Newton not diving on a loose ball. Last year, it was Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan not taking what might’ve been a game-clinching field goal.

And six months ago, we figured out that the Patriots aren’t immune to this trend, but the team’s approach after the fact has been different. While Carroll, Newton and Quinn fielded seemingly neverending questions on why they made the decisions they did, New England coach Bill Belichick has stonewalled any attempt to get to the bottom of why Malcolm Butler, a second-team All-Pro in 2016 and the foil to Carroll and Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX, didn’t play a single defensive snap on Feb. 4, 2018.

The day before the team opened camp, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy tried to get answers out of Belichick, but his efforts went nowhere, like pretty much any attempt to get the coach to spill has. And while some defensive players now concede that they knew Butler’s role was going to be reduced going into Super Bowl LII, they’ll claim ignorance on having any more intel than that. If it’s bothering the players, they aren’t showing it—even if they’ll admit they’ve thought about it.

“It’s a thought, but how much can you really think on that?” sixth-year safety Duron Harmon told me after a cloudy first day at camp. “At the end of the day, it was a decision that was made and it was a decision we had to live with. I mean, you want to say, ‘What if?’ But at the end of the day, the world doesn’t work on what-ifs, so you gotta take it for what it is.”

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There have been whispers as to why he was benched, of course. One rumor was that Butler, who arrived late to Minneapolis after getting sick over the bye weekend, saw how his role would be diminished during the week and didn’t practice well as a result. Belichick could have then decided that he couldn’t trust the corner he once felt comfortable matching up on Antonio Brown one-on-one.

It’s fair, too, to think a right-minded Butler might have made the difference. As Patriots-Eagles exploded into a shootout, it was clear that a single defensive play might make the difference, like the one Butler made three years earlier did. And that’s how things played out—Brandon Graham’s strip-sack of Tom Brady provided the clincher in Philly’s first Super Bowl win.

The questions don’t end there. Even if Belichick didn’t trust Butler at the outset, once Nick Foles caught fire and the Patriot defense started crumbling, wouldn’t it have been worth throwing him out there just to see? If anything truly crazy did happen, then why did Patriot-connected teams still chase after him in free agency (he landed with one, in Tennessee)?

“For me, it’s a brand new season,” said defensive end Trey Flowers, when I asked. “I’m not a guy that looks into the past, or looks to see what happened, or harp on the past for too long. It’s definitely new motivation, coming up short last year. But that’s everybody, everybody in the league is chasing a goal and this is where it starts. So we gotta come out here, work hard, set a foundation and build it from there.”

So with all these relevant questions unanswered, plus lingering drama from the end of last year, now we have this—can the most consistent machine keeping plowing through the AFC, behind perhaps the greatest coach and greatest QB of all-time?

At the very least, we’ll get an answer to that one.

OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: Other teams view the Patriots as having tried to play positionless football on defense the last few years. Belichick’s been known to flip his scheme on that side every few years, and perception holds the latest idea was to stock up on linebacker/rush hybrids like signal-caller Dont’a Hightower, who sets a mold into which guys like Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Marquis Flowers fit. The Patriots have always liked those types, and loading up on them more recently has allowed Belichick to cloud who’s rushing and who’s covering on a week-to-week basis, helping the team make up for the departure of talents like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. It will be interesting to see where Belichick goes from here with that, with new de facto coordinator Brian Flores taking on much of Patricia’s responsibilities.

STORYLINE TO WATCH: It’s hard to discuss anything but the most important relationship in the building: between Brady and Belichick. The final episode of Brady’s Tom v. Time documentary only threw lighter fluid on the fire, as did the quarterback’s decision to skip all voluntary parts of the Patriots’ offseason program. I know that I wouldn’t bet against the ability of those two to compartmentalize all of it, and make it to an eighth straight AFC title game. That said, it’s not like there’s nothing to see here.

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TOP POSITION BATTLE: Coming into training camp, the biggest question mark was at left tackle—but since Day 1, there hasn't been much of a competition with ex-49er Trent Brown taking the reins early and not letting go. By all accounts, he’s been outstanding. So looking elsewhere on the roster, there’s a battle brewing at receiver. Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman are the only roster locks assured of having offensive roles (Cordarelle Patterson and Matt Slater will be big pieces on special teams), and Edelman is suspended for the first four weeks of the season. So veterans Kenny Britt, Philip Dorsett and Eric Decker, and developmental guys like Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios are fighting not just for jobs but potentially sizable roles, deep into camp.

OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: During minicamp, tight end Rob Gronkowski was showing every bit of his personality, letting everyone hear it as he flashed his big-play ability in returning to the practice field after missing the rest of the offseason program. But the day I was at training camp, he was much more reserved. You wonder what effect his contract situation may have on him as the regular season draws closer.

PARTING THOUGHT: Jason McCourty’s in such an interesting spot. Last year he was on the 0-16 Browns; now he’s in a place with Dom Pérignon problems. And yes, he’s heard the noise that has followed the Patriots this offseason—after all, his brother, Devin, has been a captain here for the better of a decade. So I asked this guy with such varied experience if he feels like these sorts of distractions can take a team down.

“I won’t say it takes down teams, but for individual guys, stuff creeps in,” he answered. “We’re all human, and maybe what you’re going through in your personal life, or what you’re going through in other forums, gets in. Sometimes, you just don’t have a good team, and I’ve been on teams where we didn’t have good players, we didn’t have good coaches and we didn’t win. Some of it is that. There are good players here, there are good coaches here and we know how to work together. And it’s being able to do that on a day-in and day-out basis to improve each day.”

So could the Patriots be susceptible? From watching Devin, Jason doesn’t think so. “For him, he’s been in the AFC championship game every year except one, and that’s abnormal. What’s special here is they know that,” Jason said. “The guys here know how much work it takes to get to that point, and guys put in that work. Everybody knows that last year, making it to the Super Bowl, no one cares, it’s over with. It’s about what you’re doing in training camp from Day 1 to be the best you can be this season.”

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