By Adam Kaufman, WBZ NewsRadio 1030
BOSTON (CBS) — Is Malcolm Butler the difference between the Patriots taking the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis February 4 and celebrating under another avalanche of confetti after a second straight Super Bowl win and third and four years?
The blind-faith “In Bill We Trust” crowd will happily remind even the quietest of doubters exactly why Pats legendary head coach and decision-maker Bill Belichick has earned such trust and allegiance in the first place if you bring up New England parting with key defensive cogs Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins last year, before managing to improve.
But that doesn’t mean each and every decision has to go without question, absent the slightest second-guess.
It’s mind-boggling how the Patriots and the Super Bowl hero and fan-favorite Butler reached what could be a point of no return. Most assume Stephon Gilmore’s surprise signing and Butler’s understandable frustration have led the team and player to an insurmountable impasse. One values the system; the other what’s perceived to be just. Whether Butler next suits up for the Saints, Texans, or somewhere else in 2017 appears at this moment to be a when, not if.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and no one knows that better than Belichick.
As a restricted free agent, Butler’s largely unknown agent Derek Simpson can shop his client’s services to his heart’s content. Unlike in unrestricted free agency, the final say ultimately belongs to the team.
We’ve seen Belichick operate up close for nearly two decades in New England and the cold, business-first reality’s been emphasized time and time again to the point where even Tom Brady has acknowledged he could be cut loose one day if it’s best for the bottom-line. Belichick knows he can win without Butler. He’s done it. Still, he doesn’t have to.
Pairing Gilmore and Butler would give the Pats two of perhaps the top five corners in the entire league. All due respect to what free man and free agent Darrelle Revis did on his island with the physical Brandon Browner flanking him in 2014, this new potential pairing would be even better.
If Belichick wants to see for himself, rather than lean on Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Justin Coleman, and Cyrus Jones (remember, Logan Ryan’s in Tennessee now), all he has to do is effectively force Butler to play for his $3.91 million tender this season, a more than $3 million increase from his 2016 salary.
Should Butler leverage a contract offer from the cap-strapped Saints or anywhere else, it is up to Belichick whether to match. If he would not, due to the guaranteed $40 million he just committed to Gilmore, so be it: Saints, fork over that 11th overall pick.
Belichick and New Orleans coach Sean Payton are buddies, but there doesn’t have to be a quid pro quo stemming from the Brandin Cooks trade. The receiver wanted out and he may have ultimately forced his old team’s hand. It could be argued Belichick did Payton a favor parting with No. 32 and a fourth-rounder for an incredibly talented wideout famous for saying, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” Cooks wants to get paid in short-order. It’s entirely possible he won’t be long for Foxborough – a gamble for Belichick; worthwhile, but a gamble. There’s absolutely no reason the coach should roll over and accept his old first-round selection back in a deal for Butler when the system dictates he’s entitled to a pick 21 choices higher. Again, Belichick respects the system.
There’s also the possibility Belichick’s actually using Payton to show Butler his value isn’t what he believe it is. ESPN’s Adam Schefter may have subtly indicated as much in a tweet Thursday, when listing the Patriots’ many moves since the start of free agency, but only the additions and not the losses. “Next: Malcolm Butler” may mean he’s the next priority to re-sign, or simply the next situation with which to deal. A twisted web, we weave.
(If I may have a moment to address, Malcom, by the way: What are ya doin’, man? Of course you want to get paid and your desire to break from the norm and do so sooner than later is understandable, especially if you feel disrespected, lied to, or both, but why force your way out of town into a situation that may not be more comfortable just to speed up the payday?
Some advice from the peanut gallery: You like it here, right? Everyone says so. Play for the tender, have another great season in a familiar environment, maybe win a third ring. Then go get Gilmore money next winter at the destination of your choosing rather than one of just a couple spots that may be willing to give up the compensation and probably discounted dollars required to get you. Unless you get franchised for around $15 mil, which isn’t bad. Okay, end rant.)
Getting back to a possible trade: Butler for No. 11 isn’t ideal, given his emergence, fit, success, playmaking ability, big-game confidence, quiet leadership, worth ethic, durability, and oh so many other qualities, but it’s a reasonable return for a player the Patriots have seemingly decided they won’t lock-up long-term. Why they won’t is still a bit beyond comprehension, but it will probably never be explained either.
Settling for a lesser return like No. 32 for a clearly difference-making commodity and weakening the team in the process makes less sense. Fans across New England have watched the Patriots go from “five weeks behind” after winning their fifth championship last month to seemingly a full season ahead of the rest of the NFL. Flights to Minnesota are being researched and hotel rooms are on hold.
The Pats lost tight end Martellus Bennet to the Packers and replaced him with perhaps an even better blocker in Dwayne Allen from the conference-rival Colts. Ryan went to the Titans, but in came the far superior Gilmore from a division foe in Buffalo. Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long are gone, but Belichick pounced on defensive lineman and would-be Super Bowl MVP Kony Ealy from the Panthers. He also signed another lineman, Lawrence Guy, away from the Ravens and added special teamer and running back Rex Burkhead after a career-year in Cincinnati.
No two Patriots free agents were more important than Dont’a Hightower and Alan Branch. Both returned, and with them so has an elite run defense and veteran on-field leadership. Safety Duron Harmon’s back as well.
And, goodness, what Cooks may provide downfield after totaling 2,311 yards and 17 touchdowns on 162 catches the last two seasons is frightening to envision. At 23, he’s already off to an historic start to his career and projects to take a ton of pressure off Julian Edelman and a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
Did I mention the Patriots still have north of $20 million to spend? Room for LeGarrette Blount, a restructured Danny Amendola, and more. Even, yes, paying Butler more than that tender.
There’s no other way to put it: The Patriots are reloading, and they aren’t done.
The reason why isn’t exactly clear. Maybe it is as simple as you think. Tom Brady’s months from 40. The all-time great has played at an MVP level each of the last two years and he’s fresh off the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history, but all the avocado ice cream in the world won’t keep him on the field forever. However doubtful, Belichick may be looking at one last run with his Hall of Famer before handing the reins over to Jimmy Garoppolo. Otherwise, retaining the highly-regarded back-up rather than flipping him for a first-round pick (or more) makes little sense.
Perhaps Belichick wants one more very realistic chance at a perfect season, 19-0, after his team only recently trademarked both phrases. It’s not illogical to connect those dots. Hope you’re listening, Mercury Morris.
At 64 next month, the coach could be thinking about his own football mortality. Belichick doesn’t seem to wish to do anything else and has often said his job doesn’t feel like work – heck, the guy doesn’t even believe in days off – but Pats owner Robert Kraft hadn’t made it a point to acknowledge that timeline until recently, when he did it the week ahead of the Super Bowl.
Anything’s possible, but, putting it simply, the Patriots have handled this offseason with an unprecedented approach. Their aggressiveness on both sides of the ball to provide Brady additional weapons and match-up with bigger, dynamic wideouts on defense has been reminiscent of 2007 and 2014, respectively… only possibly better given the combination.
That narrative will change, if only a little, should Belichick allow Butler to leave. He doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t. And Butler can’t force his hand.
Keep him, Bill, and end the NFL season before it has even started while the city gasses up the duck boats.
Adam Kaufman, a native of Massachusetts, works for WBZ NewsRadio 1030 and 98.5 The Sports Hub and has worked as a television and radio anchor and broadcaster for various outlets since 2004. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMKaufman.