Butler’s Super Bowl benching remains a mystery

Published 7:26 pm Monday, February 5, 2018

Dawn broke over New England on Monday, but it didn’t shed any new light on what will likely be one of the lingering controversies from Super Bowl LII.

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, who started 17 of the team’s 18 games and played on nearly 98 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season, was benched for Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Vicksburg native got on the field for one special teams play as Philadelphia shredded the Patriots for 538 total yards and won 41-33.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick told NBC at halftime of the Super Bowl that the decision was based on the game plan and personnel, and was not a disciplinary or health issue. In a season-ending conference call with the media on Monday, he stuck to that message.

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“I respect Malcolm’s competitiveness, and I’m sure he felt he could’ve helped. I’m sure other players felt the same way,” Belichick said. “In the end, we have to make the decisions we feel are best for the football team. That’s what I did. That’s really all I can say about it.”

Belichick also was asked if he thought about putting Butler in the lineup as the defense struggled.

“I just covered that,” Belichick said.

During his postgame press conference, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was asked nine questions about Butler’s absence. Patricia answered each one by saying the packages the Patriots happened to use weren’t ones Butler was included in.

The Patriots used a nickel package with two cornerbacks and three safeties for most of the game.

“We just played all the guys we could to try to help us win in whatever packages we had,” Patricia said in response to the first of the nine questions. The other eight elicited nearly identical answers. “Different situations came up, and we were just trying to move some things around. … We just had a situation where we had some matchups and packages that we went with.”

Malcolm Butler

Butler was not available to the media after the team’s buses returned to their home stadium Monday afternoon. Only a few dozen fans were waiting to greet them.

Butler’s locker had unopened packages in front of it. On the shelves were game balls; at the bottom was a stack of cleats.

Butler missed a day of practice last week and Super Bowl media night with an illness and didn’t arrive in Minneapolis until Tuesday. In an interview with The Vicksburg Post on Thursday, he said that was a precaution to prevent him from infecting his teammates on the flight from Boston.

“I didn’t feel well to travel. I didn’t want to risk anyone on my team getting sick or anything like that,” Butler said last week.

Butler warmed up and was in uniform Sunday, but watched nearly all of the game from the sideline. It was the first Patriots game in which Butler did not play a first quarter snap since their Super Bowl win over Seattle to cap the 2014 season.

Butler seemed to be caught off guard and hurt by his benching. He was spotted by NBC’s TV cameras crying during the national anthem, and after the game left the locker room without talking to reporters. An ESPN reporter caught up to Butler on the way to the team bus.

“They gave up on me. (Expletive),” Butler told ESPN. “It is what it is.

“I don’t know what it was,” Butler continued. “I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”

Eric Rowe, a third-year player who only started three games and played in eight this season, got the start at cornerback ahead of Butler. Rowe was credited with four tackles and two pass defenses, but the Eagles racked up 373 passing yards and their quarterback Nick Foles was the MVP.

The 41 points allowed by the Patriots were the most since a 33-30 loss to Carolina in Week 4. It was the first time they’d allowed more than 300 passing yards since Week 6 against the New York Jets.
Butler earned praise from his teammates for the way he handled the situation.

“He did a good job of staying in tune the whole time, cheering his teammates on, so a lot of respect to Malcolm for being a great teammate today,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said in a postgame press conference. “Everybody wants to play this game. Everybody works hard to play this game. I’m pretty sure that he was a little upset that he didn’t play.”

Butler rose to NFL stardom after signing with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He made the game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle that season. Ironically, he didn’t start that game either and was inserted into the lineup in the second half to shore up a struggling secondary.

Butler was nearly traded last summer and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. When interviewed by ESPN after the game, Butler declined to speculate on his future.

“I ain’t Miss Cleo,” he told ESPN, “so I can’t tell the future.”

The Associated Press, Patriots.com, ESPN and NESN.com contributed to this report.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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