By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You know, you can’t swing a stick around these parts without hitting somebody who’s contemplating the status of Malcolm Butler on the Patriots.
It’s not completely without validity, of course, not after Butler started Sunday’s game on the sideline and served a third-cornerback role after starting and playing almost every snap for the past two seasons. Butler had no doubt been demoted for Sunday’s game — a 16-point Patriots victory in New Orleans.
The change in status is noteworthy, for sure, but it’s set off a level of panic that is perhaps disproportionate to reality.
In his conference call with reporters on Monday, head coach Bill Belichick gave a generic answer about Butler, which is something he’ll often do when asked about specific players’ performances. The fact that he did speak in some detail about the positive performances of other players led to a lot of reading between a lot of lines from a whole lot of people.
Again, fair — but it’s generally not the greatest practice to parse the words of the coach to reach a solid conclusion. And yet, it wouldn’t take long for you to find comparisons being drawn between Butler this year and Jamie Collins last year.
That’s probably not the best course. Nobody — noooobooooddyyyyyy — saw the Jamie Collins trade coming. There was no smoke before that rocket was ignited.
A much better comparison can be found with none other than one Mr. Wesley Carter Welker, a man who found himself in a similar swirl of early-season speculation exactly five years ago.
A brief recap on Welker:
–He caught 432 passes for 4,536 yards and 22 touchdowns from 2007 through 2010, leading the league in receptions in ’07 and ’09. He pulled off a miraculously speedy recovery from a torn knee at the end of ’09 to catch 86 passes for 848 yards and seven touchdowns in ’10.
–He cracked wise in a press conference prior to the Patriots’ 2010 playoff game against the Jets, taking aim at Rex Ryan’s foot fetish. Likely incensed, Belichick benched Welker for the opening series of that game. That series ended with a Tom Brady interception to David Harris — Brady’s first interception in 339 pass attempts, just his fifth of the entire year, in a play that really shaped the game. The Patriots were upset on their home turf, 28-21.
–Welker followed up that 2010 season with the very best year of his career: 122 receptions, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns in 2011. Alas, his 2011 season was marred by a drop in the Super Bowl, a play where a catch would have likely been enough to ice a victory for New England. Instead, the Giants drove down the field and won the game.
–For whatever reason, Welker found himself in somewhat of a diminished role to start the 2012 season. He caught just three passes for 14 yards in the season opener in Tennessee, and he did not start the following week at home in a loss to Arizona.
At that point, the hysteria of a “Wes Welker phase-out plan” began to spread like wildfire. Is Bill still mad about 2010? Was it the Super Bowl drop? Was it that Wally Pipp comment from 2009? Is this all because Welker wouldn’t sign a long-term, team-friendly contract?
The speculation wasn’t entirely without reason. Welker played just 62 snaps vs. Arizona, while Brandon Lloyd played 80 and Julian Edelman played 73. Welker’s usage was undeniably down … but he did also catch five passes for 95 yards in that game as the team’s leading receiver. So, he was still very much involved, despite the “phase-out.”
Yet, the theories were thrown around like crazy.
Sept. 10, 2012, ESPNBoston.com:
“Welker had a quiet game (3 catches for 14 yards) and this type of plan — and his playing time — makes one wonder if it’s the potential beginning of a less Welker-centric attack. “
Sept. 10, 2012, Business Insider:
“Welker is still a meaningful part of this offense. But he is no longer the first guy Tom Brady looks for when they break the huddle.”
Sept. 17, 2012, ESPN’s Cris Carter:
“They’re phasing Wes Welker out in New England. They gave him the franchise tag this year, couldn’t come to a long term agreement, paid him $9.5 million for the season. They’ve devalued the position as far as wide receiver because of [Rob Gronkowski] and [Aaron] Hernandez. They do everything that a typical offense would want from their wide receivers, they get that from their tight ends.”
Sept. 17, 2012, The Boston Globe:
“After the Patriots’ absolutely stunning — and, really, inexcusable — 20-18 loss to the Cardinals Sunday at Gillette Stadium, there can be no doubt: Welker was set to be phased out of the Patriots’ offense. … Maybe the Super Bowl play is still fresh in the mind of Belichick. A drop in Tennessee didn’t help. And Welker also dropped a big third-down play against the Cardinals that preceded a blocked punt that set up a touchdown that gave Arizona a 13-9 lead in the third quarter. … The Patriots could either be punishing Welker for not accepting the team’s offer of a contract extension, and/or trying to hold his production level down so he won’t draw a big contract on the free agent market.”
Sept. 19, 2012, CBSSports.com:
“It’s fair to wonder if Bill Belichick is trying to move Edelman ahead of Welker on the depth chart, and if that’s the case, you have to wonder how much Welker’s contract dispute contributes to that.”
To be fair, with five years having passed now, there were aspects of this speculation that proved correct. Yes, Welker was not long for New England, as the Patriots showed very little interest in signing Welker to any sort of deal when he became a free agent after that 2012 season. Welker was not in the long-term plans of the Patriots. And yes, Belichick likely wanted to see what he had in Edelman. As it turned out, the coach had himself a player. It’s also true that injuries to Hernandez (Week 2) and Edelman (Week 3) left the coaching staff with no choice but to give Welker his regular playing time.
Applying rational thought, the idea that Belichick wanted to learn more about Edelman before cutting ties with Welker would seemingly apply more to the situation than anything about Belichick taking out his vengeance on Welker for not signing a contract. There were, after all, still football games to be won.
(Applying rational thought to the current Butler situation: The cornerback did not play very well through the summer, and he wasn’t great in the season opener. Belichick runs a meritocracy; Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones earned their playing time. Combine that with the less-than-ideal matchups for the 5-foot-11 Butler on either the 6-foot-3 Michael Thomas or the 6-foot-6 Brandon Coleman, and it’s not exactly a mystery why Butler would have received a reduction in playing time on Sunday in New Orleans. OK, Back to Wesley.)
Nevertheless, the idea two weeks into the season was pretty clear: Many, many folks believed Welker would maintain a diminished role in the Patriots’ offense for the duration of the 2012 season.
Yet, here’s what Welker did in Week 3 against the Ravens: eight receptions, 142 yards.
And in Week 4 against the Bills: nine receptions, 129 yards.
And then, in Week 5 against the Broncos: 13 receptions, 104 yards, and a touchdown.
He followed that up with this performance in Week 6 in Seattle: 10 receptions, 138 yards, and a touchdown.
Suffice it to say, the phase-out did not go according to plan.
Welker would go on to catch 118 passes (seven more than his average of 111 per year from 2007-11) for 1,354 yards (133 more yards than his average over the previous five seasons) and six touchdowns (exactly his average per year over the previous five seasons).
He led the team in receptions, catching 44 more passes than Lloyd and 63 more passes than Gronkowski, who were second and third on the team, respectively. He led the team in receiving yards, gaining 443 more yards than Lloyd and 564 more yards than Gronkowski. And he was second on the team in touchdown receptions, behind Gronkowski.
Despite all of that early-season speculation, Welker remained the driver of the Patriots’ potent offense, which led the league in scoring and yards. He finished tied for second in the whole league in receptions, behind only Calvin Johnson, and he was eighth in the NFL in receiving yards. His 72 first downs ranked sixth among NFL pass catchers, and his 702 yards after the catch ranked No. 1 in the league.
The postseason ended in a disappointing loss at home in the AFC Championship Game for the Patriots, but Welker was targeted 25 times in the Patriots’ two playoff games. In the two games, he caught 16 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. The two games rank No. 1 and No. 2 for Welker in his career for receiving yards in postseason games. To the very end, Welker was a significant part of the Patriots’ offense. (It should be mentioned that he did have a key drop in that AFC title game, though.)
After the year, of course, the Patriots did move on from Welker, just as the Patriots appear ready to do with Butler at the end of the 2017 season. Still, long-term plans don’t necessarily mean that a player can’t contribute in a significant way while still being a member of the team.
At the time, some sage, handsome writers cast doubts upon those believing Belichick would let some sort of personal vendetta interfere with his efforts to win football games. But such voices were few and far between, and they were often drowned out by the cries of hysteria echoing throughout the region.
It’s a story that may not compare apples-to-apples with Butler. But with so many people speculating about a possible midseason trade of a player who has been on the field for 88 percent of the team’s defensive snaps through two weeks, it’s worth remembering that not all early-season story lines turn into shocking midseason trades. Just as often — if not more often — much of the early-season panic becomes a minor footnote by the time the season ends in New England.