Malcolm Butler was teary-eyed during the national anthem, his emotions captured by NBC’s telecast just before the start of Super Bowl LII. As it turned out, the cornerback — the unexpected hero of New England’s Super Bowl XLIX win — had just found out he would be benched for Sunday’s championship game, one New England would lose to the Eagles in a 41-33 shootout.
Afterward, a disconsolate Butler told ESPN’s Mike Reiss, “They gave up on me. F—. It is what it is.”
“I don’t know what it was,” Butler said of his benching. “I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”
During the regular season, Butler led all Patriots defensive players with a 97.83 snap percentage (per Pro-Football Reference), and he played every snap of New England’s first two postseason games. However, just before the Super Bowl kicked off, Butler was told he would be replaced by fellow cornerback Eric Rowe, a decision that left even Rowe surprised.
“No, that wasn’t the plan,” Rowe said (via NFL.com). “It wasn’t official until kickoff. . . . I feel for [Butler].”
After the game, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was asked about his decision to bench Butler, who only took the field on one special-teams play. “We put the best players and game plan out there that we felt was best for tonight, like we always do,” Belichick said.
“It was a coach’s decision,” said Butler, whose goal-line interception sealed the Patriots’ Super Bowl win over the Seahawks in 2015. “I was just doing my job and supporting my teammates. I have nothing but great things to say about the organization. They gave me an opportunity. That’s about it.”
Making Belichick’s decision even more of a head-scratcher was that Rowe struggled in coverage Sunday, as did the Patriots’ secondary in general. Nick Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors.
One former Patriots player laid the blame for the loss squarely on Belichick for overthinking, and his social-media post was liked by present and former Patriots Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Alfonzo Dennard.
“Lost the game for us tonight,” former cornerback Brandon Browner captioned an Instagram photo of Belichick. “Stupid decision and makes no sense. You make the decision to give us the best chance to win. But u don’t play your best cornerback. F— the politics.”
“A locker room was divided pre game,” he added in another post and he also pointed out that the Eagles amassed “the most passing yards in Super Bowl history.”
Ty Law, the former Patriots cornerback, chimed in, too, tweeting, “We Need to get to [the] bottom of this.”
Browner also sent a message to Butler, whose future in New England is uncertain. “Your spirit was all over that game tonight. Definitely seen it, they had safeties covering WR to prove a point. God bless u my friend, keep fighting, I saw you tear up pre game, first sign. You done a lot for that team and that community it’s ok to move on.”
Offered the opportunity to respond to his current and former players and to explain the process that led to Butler’s benching, Belichick declined. “I respect Malcolm’s competitiveness and I’m sure he felt like he could have helped, and I’m sure the players felt the same way,” he told reporters in a conference call. “But in the end, we have to field our best football team.”
Asked time and again to elaborate, he said only, “I appreciate the question, but it would be a much longer discussion. There are a lot of things that go into that. In the end, the final decision is what I said it was.”
On NFL Network’s postgame show, analysts and former players LaDainian Tomlinson and Deion Sanders agreed that benching Butler cost the Patriots dearly. Pointing out that New England often employed a scheme that had safeties covering slot receivers with no extra help, Sanders said, “I feel like [Butler] would have been a better fit for the defensive calls today.” (Philadelphia slot receiver Nelson Agholor racked up nine catches for 84 yards.)
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who is expected to become the Lions’ head coach, told reporters his team was simply “trying to run some packages,” which apparently didn’t happen to include Butler. “It kind of turned out that way, and the game with the way it went and some of the situations that came up, that was just kind of the way it went,” he said.
The bigger Rowe had reportedly been practicing during the week as a starting cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore, but Rowe said after the game that he still expected Butler to get his share of playing time. Gilmore said (via the Boston Herald) that Butler is “a scrappy player, so he could have helped us, maybe? I don’t know. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”
Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who helped New England win the Super Bowl last season, expressed surprise at his former teammate’s benching. “Malcolm Butler didn’t play? Man, I didn’t know that,” Long said. “That’s tough. He’s a hell of a player.”
“The guy has played a lot of football, so to not be out there I’m sure crushed him,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “We all want to be out there, we all want to play, so I know Malc, he’s super competitive. He wants to be out there, so I’m not surprised he was emotional.”
Butler heads into the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning he may have played his last game as a Patriot. Asked by Reiss what would come next for him, the cornerback replied, “I ain’t Miss Cleo, so I can’t tell the future.”
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