The soap opera involving Bill Belichick’s benching of Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 52 just keeps on giving, leading to a flurry of support for the cornerback — including one very public boost from Tom Brady.
The quarterback responded with a “like” on Butler’s passionate self-defense on Instagram, writing: “Love you Malcolm. You are an incredible player and teammate and friend. Always!!!!!!”
That’s six exclamation points, if you’re counting at home.
Butler, whose heroic interception saved Super Bowl 49 for the Patriots, was mysteriously benched Sunday, managing to get in only one special teams play. With vague reports and rumors swirling, the cornerback spoke up Tuesday, writing that he would never do anything to hurt his team’s chances, that he never missed curfew during Super Bowl week and that he never “participated [in] any of the ridiculous activities being reported,” including attending a Rick Ross concert. The reports, Butler wrote, “are not only false, but hurtful, to me and my family.”
Butler’s benching has remained the biggest question mark after New England’s 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, with Belichick repeatedly declining to explain his decision to keep one of his best defenders on the bench. “I appreciate the question, but it would be a much longer discussion,” Belichick said during a Monday teleconference. “There are a lot of things that go into that. In the end, the final decision is what I said it was.”
And those postgame comments weren’t much more specific. Belichick said Sunday that Butler’s benching wasn’t a disciplinary decision but rather a matter of putting the “players and game plan out there that we thought would be the best, like we always do.” Butler, though, had played 97.8 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps in the regular season.
In his Tuesday statement, which he posted on Twitter and Instagram, Butler thanked the Patriots owner, coaches and teammates and paid tribute to the team’s fans. But he also responded to suggestions of wrongdoing that have filled the information vacuum, writing that he “visited with my family every night” during Super Bowl week.
Both national and local beat writers have suggested this week that the decision to bench Butler had at least something to do with discipline. NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport described “a perfect storm” of issues including sickness, poor practice, “some attitudes” and a minor violation of team rules. Rapoport said the violation was “related to curfew, perhaps because of [Butler’s] attendance at a Rick Ross concert during Super Bowl week.” NBC Sports Boston’s Mike Giardi also reported that Butler violated his curfew at some point during the team’s stay in Minneapolis, calling the story “multilayered” and saying it “was a culmination of a variety of things that have popped up with Malcolm over the course of this season and maybe even others in the past.”
But Butler wrote that he “never attended any concert” or missed curfew.
“Although I wish I could have contributed more to help my team win, I have to get ready for the next opportunity,” he wrote. “Moving forward I will do what I have always done to work hard, and prepare for next season to be the best I can be on and off the field.”
The Eagles feasted on his replacements in their upset win, converting 6 of 7 third downs when targeting Eric Rowe, Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards. Belichick’s decision thus prompted widespread criticism this week, which suddenly took a wild turn with the news Tuesday evening that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would not take the Indianapolis Colts job, staying instead with the Patriots. That fueled talk that Belichick might perhaps be stepping aside, with McDaniels (and Brady) winning a power struggle.
No one is talking, but it was clear that the criticism of a coaching decision by Belichick was a rarity — and one that was widespread. Patriots fans called into Boston sports-talk stations to vent about the game and former Patriots defensive backs like Brandon Browner and Ty Law questioned the move. The former called the benching a “stupid decision” that “makes no sense” and lost New England the game; the latter wrote that he was “baffled” and that “we needed that man on the field.”
Former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich also questioned the move during an appearance Monday on WEEI.
“I mean, if it was discipline, I don’t know if that is the best way to go about it,” Ninkovich said. “You need good players on the field to execute. Bill says it all the time. Bill will say it in interviews: ‘Coaches don’t win games, players do. Coaches lose games.’ At the end of the day you have to have your best players on the field and you question if Malcolm not being on the field is the best option to win the football game. At the end of the day, it is what it is. That is what happened. It is in history now.
“For Malcolm, what is best for him is hit free agency,” Ninkovich said. “He is going to go to another team here and probably get paid accordingly. I wish nothing but the best for him and hope he continues to play at a high level that we have all seen.”
“I respect Malcolm’s competitiveness, and I’m sure that he felt like he could have helped,” Belichick said Monday. “I’m sure other players felt the same way. In the end, we have to make the decisions that we feel are best for the football team, and that’s what we did, that’s what I did.”
Butler, the surprise hero of New England’s 2015 Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks, now heads into the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning he may have played his last game for the franchise. He had addressed his benching only briefly after the game, telling 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.”
In his statement Tuesday, he apologized for the language he had used “during a very emotional time.”
“It was out of character for me and my character,” he wrote, after noting that he has “always respected everyone at the New England Patriots organization.”
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