By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When Devin McCourty recently spoke about Malcolm Butler’s benching in the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, he spoke pretty clearly. Nevertheless, his comments rapidly spread across the country and were misinterpreted along the way.
On Friday, appearing on Sirius XM’s NFL Radio, McCourty clarified his comments — which, again, didn’t really need to be clarified.
The Patriots’ safety and defensive captain told Sirius that players on the team only knew that Butler would not start the game. But when it came to not playing at all? The Patriots were just as surprised as the rest of the world.
Ever the diplomat, McCourty didn’t answer directly when asked if the Patriots’ defense was weakened by not having Butler on the field to try to limit the Eagles’ offense.
While the Butler saga has certainly received considerable air time over the past three weeks, it is with reason. With nearly two decades of Bill Belichick decisions to choose from, the concept to not use Butler at all ranks as the No. 1 most bizarre. And for Belichick to refuse to insert Butler into the game, even as Nick Foles was in the process of throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns, it’s a decision that also stands out as one of the worst.
McCourty said last weekend that Patriots players knew in the week leading up to the Super Bowl that Butler would not be starting, likely due to Eric Rowe getting starter’s reps in practice. But McCourty never said that players knew Butler would not play at all. Regardless, Stephen A. Smith broadcast to millions of people on ESPN that he did not believe McCourty … even though his statement indicated he did in fact believe McCourty. Such is the way “information” can move in the modern era.
It was McCourty who found himself isolated in man coverage on Zach Ertz for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown for the Eagles. While that was a play that McCourty simply did not make, it was indicative of how the absence of Butler forced New England’s defensive players to serve roles that they hadn’t all year. Patrick Chung did not get to play to his strengths, essentially serving the role of a third cornerback. Jordan Richards tried — and failed — to play the Patrick Chung role. Johnson Bademosi got a crack at filling Rowe’s normal role at slot corner, and likewise failed.
As you might expect, the exclusion of a player who took nearly every single snap from the beginning of September through the end of January sent a ripple effect throughout the defense, and it made the unit worse.
Immediately after the loss, the Patriots’ defensive backs all said that Butler’s absence and the presence of players not normally involved in every-down roles didn’t really impact their play. McCourty’s comments on Friday repeat that sentiment. Such is to be expected from players on a team who generally just do what they’re instructed to do by their head coach. But anyone who watched that game certainly knows better.
For now, though, at the very least, McCourty’s comments are clarified. Patriots players, one way or another, knew that Butler would not start in the Super Bowl. They did not know that Butler would not play at all during the game. Hopefully that’s clear enough so that the Stephen A.’s of the world don’t misconstrue the message and force another clarification in a few days.