By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One of the most mysterious aspects of the Patriots’ Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles is that Malcolm Butler watched it all from the sidelines.
The cornerback was benched by Bill Belichick in the biggest game of the season, and the New England head coach didn’t offer up much of a reason behind it following the game.
Belichick said the benching was not a disciplinary decision, and when asked by NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran if it was “strictly football,” he responded that it was. During halftime, Belichick told NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, “I made the decisions that give us the best chance to win,” when asked about benching his No. 2 cornerback.
Butler didn’t want to chat about that decision after the loss. He quickly changed and left the locker room after the 41-33 defeat, likely for the final time as a Patriot as he heads to unrestricted free agency.
He told ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss that the Patriots gave up on him, and after letting a choice word fly, said “It is what it is.”
It was a rough night all around for the New England defense, as Eagles quarterback Nick Foles carved them up for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Eric Rowe got the nod in place of Butler and the Eagles picked on him to start the game. Rowe saved the first defensive drive for New England when he broke up a pass in the end zone to Alshon Jeffery, but the Eagles got the best of the matchup on their next trip down the field as Foles hooked up with the receiver for a 34-yard touchdown over Rowe.
When chatting with reporters after the game, Rowe said Butler practiced as part of different packages during the week.
Fellow corner Stepon Gilmore was asked if he was surprised that Butler was not playing.
“I mean, he’s a great player, you know? I want everybody to play,” Gilmore said. “I think he could’ve helped us. Maybe. I don’t know. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”
Over on the celebratory side of the postgame room, two of Butler’s former teammates expressed sympathy.
“I don’t know what that was about,” said LeGarrette Blount. “Obviously he’s a game-changing player. I hope he’s OK and I wish him and them the best.”
“Malcolm Butler didn’t play? Man, that’s tough. He’s a hell of a player,” Chris Long said. “Golly. I didn’t know that.”
The Patriots employed a lot of three-safety sets against the Eagles, but the big question is why did they go with Rowe over Butler, who played nearly every snap during the regular season. This boils down to Belichick making a decision, one that hurt his team in the end.
Butler had a bit of an off-year following a trying offseason, when the restricted free agent did not get a long-term deal from the Patriots and his name was floated in trade rumors with the New Orleans Saints. It’s almost a certainty that his days in New England will be over following his Super Bowl benching.
We still don’t know exactly why Belichick chose to go without his one of his best cornerbacks in the biggest game of the season, and we may never find out. But it’s certainly something that Patriots fans will be questioning for a long, long time after the Patriots came up for in their quest for a sixth Super Bowl title.