Anderson: Benching Malcolm Butler will go down as Bill Belichick's greatest misfire

Ty Anderson
February 05, 2018 - 5:01 am

Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports

Deep down, I can live with miracle helmet and sideline catches alike derailing would-be Super Bowl victories. I can even forgive Wes Welker for catching about six million meaningless passes but dropping what would've been the biggest catch of his Patriots career. 

But what I can’t live with is letting one of your best players awkwardly twist in the winds of the Super Bowl LII sidelines as the death blow to a needless 11-month saga sparked by sour contract negotiations and trade rumors, which is exactly what Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did with the benching of Malcolm Butler in a 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.

The obvious is that we know Belichick is no stranger to this sort of ruthlessness, of course. I mean who could forget cutting Tiquan Underwood the night before Super Bowl XLVI?

Belichick once benched a player equally important to Butler for the start of a playoff game in Welker after he made subtle foot fetish jokes at Rex Ryan’s expense, too. Welker drew back into the game, of course, and resumed his role in an upset loss to the Jets. But since then, the consistency of those messages sent have come down to a player’s importance. It was before a divisional round head-to-head two years ago that Chandler Jones arrived at a police station high on synthetic weed and reportedly missing a shirt. In January. But Jones -- to the surprise of everybody -- was not benched. He even kept his starting gig.

So, to warrant a full-game benching against a team with the receiving weapons of the Eagles, Butler must’ve done the absolute unthinkable. He most definitely and relentlessly made fun of Doug Pederson for wearing a visor in 2018, downed some edibles stolen during a tour of Paisley Park, and threw Belichick’s Al Capone hat off the fourth floor of the Mall of America. Or maybe Butler truly crossed a line and revealed that the mercifully scrapped plans for a Prince hologram to accompany Justin Timberlake’s halftime performance was originally his idea.

It would be the only explanation to suddenly bench a player that entered this game having played in every single one of your defensive snaps this postseason, right?

“We just played all the guys we could to try and help us win, whatever packages we had when given situations came up," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said when asked about Butler’s absence. "We tried to move some things around.”

Clear as day bull. So the ask was phrased another way with hopes of a new answer.

“We tried to play all the packages we could to put everybody out there,” repeated Patricia. “He was active for the game so everybody that is active is ready to go. Just we had some situations with different matchups and packages that we went with.”

Like talking to a wall, and made worse when Rowe comes out after the game and admits that he didn’t know he was starting until right before kickoff and that Butler spent all week practicing in those packages Patricia tried to claim Butler was not included in.

So maybe Belichick had the answer to explain this obvious screw-up. Nope, it was just more bull and half-truths stating (lying) that Butler’s absence was for “football reasons.”

Their reasons and rationale were obviously wrong. As wrong a decision this staff has made during their near-unmatched reign as the NFL’s most victory-thirsty franchise.

It was wrong when you saw Butler -- the man that won Super Bowl XLIX with his interception of Russell Wilson and played in over 97 percent of the defensive snaps this season -- reduced to tears on the sideline before kickoff. It became worse when you saw the Eagles easily pinpoint Eric Rowe as the weakness on the New England defense, and absolutely pick him apart for big gains and an early lead. It then became insulting when you saw the Patriots repeatedly put Johnson Bademosi and safeties on the Eagles’ slot receiving options as Nick Foles went off for 373 yards and three scores.

All while we agonizingly watched Butler remain parked on the sideline. With his helmet on and ready to go at a moment’s notice like he was in the game that started his meteoric rise from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen cashier to All-Pro cornerback, no less.

With that image staring you in the face, you felt as if you were just waiting for Butler to take the field and save the day. As time ticked away, and with the Patriots completely unable to stop the bleeding -- on deep balls, screens, options, and anything else this Foles-led attack threw their way -- that feeling (read as: need) only strengthened.

And given his status as an emotional leader and with a knack for those big time plays the Patriots desperately needed (the Eagles went 12-for-18 on third and fourth down plays), it appeared that even those on the field in place of Butler were waiting for that to happen.

"He's a great player," Pats cornerback Stephon Gilmore, one of the few bright spots on what just appeared to be a disjointed and borderline divided defense, said of Butler. "I want everybody to play, he's a scrappy player so he could have helped us, maybe? I don't know. That's how the game goes sometimes."

But it never happened.

And somewhat fittingly -- and much like the Super Bowl play that made Butler a hero and earned Pete Carroll criticism for the rest of his life -- this move will be remembered as something that bordered on self-sabotage on the game’s biggest stage.

For something so insanely inexcusable, which is the only way you describe leaving your best corner on the sidelines with a season-high 538 yards against (one yard more than their opening night loss to the Chiefs), you deserve answers. The 40-year-old Tom Brady, who threw for over 500 yards without Super Bowl hero Julian Edelman and without Brandin Cooks for the second half (when their air attack became a must) and led an offensive attack that did not punt once, deserves answers.

But they’re clearly not coming. Not until Butler is paid accordingly and wearing a different uniform, maybe, which seems like an automatic given this score-settling finale.

A score that was not settled in Belichick’s favor, either, despite rationale we'll use in an attempt to downplay Butler’s potential impact on this game, and at the expense of more than Belichick’s pride.

And for a coach and executive that’s consistently made the right call on players and situations in an attempt to put the team above egos, that’s tough to live with.

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