By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) — Bill Belichick is among the greatest coaches of all time. He may well be the very best. There’s almost nothing he can do at this point of his career to diminish that status.
But Super Bowls are remembered forever. Every great play, every crushing mistake, every single decision — they all live on for decades, becoming the stuff of legend.
And so, when it comes to Belichick’s decision to force cornerback Malcolm Butler to stand on the sideline as a spectator for Super Bowl LII against the Eagles, it’s going to be difficult for the legendary head coach to ever live that one down.
A couple of things could have helped diminish just how bad it looked to bench a player who just last year was tasked with covering Antonio Brown in the AFC title game. For one, Belichick could have told the general public — directly in his press conference, or via other channels — that Butler was being disciplined for one reason or another. That would at least provide some reason. Secondly, his defense could have played like an NFL defense. After it gave up 538 yards and 41 points to a Nick Foles-led offense, we can comfortably say that it did not.
After the 41-33 loss, there was a strange mood in the always-somber losers’ area for postgame media meetings. Typically, these areas are filled with despondent players who look exactly like men who have had their lifelong dreams crushed in dramatic fashion. There are generally very few answers, and just as few questions, as the players are too emotional to even play the game with reporters.
But the Patriots seemed … different. They were disappointed, without a doubt. And they took responsibility for not making as many plays as the Eagles. But they were not crushed. There were no tears. Though lips are always tight when the Patriots talk to the media, it seemed almost as if they felt they had one had been taken away from them.
And though none of them would go right out and say it, the feeling was that many of them found it bizarre that Malcolm Butler did not play a single down on defense.
This is the same Malcolm Butler who played more snaps than any other player on the Patriots’ defense this year. He was on the field for 1,037 snaps in 2017, which represented 97.83 percent.
Behind him were Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Stephon Gilmore, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, and Duron Harmon, all of whom played throughout the entirety of Sunday night’s game. Yet Butler did not.
In the AFC Championship Game against Jacksonville, Butler was one of four players to take 100 percent of the defense’s 74 snaps. The week before against Tennessee, he was one of three Patriots to take 100 percent of the snaps.
Richards played six snaps against Jacksonville (8 percent) and 22 against Tennessee, largely in garbage time. Bademosi played zero snaps against the Jaguars, and he was inactive against the Titans.
In the regular season, Richards took 26 percent and Bademosi took 20 percent of the defensive snaps.
Yet in the biggest game of the season, both were given major playing time. Eric Rowe went from playing 25 percent of the snaps in the regular season to taking 95 percent of the snaps in the Super Bowl.
Butler was stuck on the sideline.
This is no bit player. He may not have had as excellent a 2017 season as his previous two, but Butler was a huge part of making the Patriots’ defense competitive. He also has a history in which he’s made arguably the single greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history. Using him in the Super Bowl was not even really a choice; it was a given.
There’s just not one reason Butler should not have been on the field to help the Patriots win the game. And after it was clear that Jordan Richards and, to a slightly lesser extent, Johnson Bademosi did not belong on the field, there was absolutely no reason for the coaching staff to not make an adjustment.
But Belichick offered little to no explanation, other than saying it was not a disciplinary decision and answering affirmatively that it was strictly a football decision. He took blame for the loss, though he did so in the same manner he always does.
“Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job coaching, missed a lot of opportunities offensively in the first half, didn’t play good enough defense, didn’t play good enough in the kicking game. Just wasn’t quite enough against a good team like Philadelphia. Give them credit,” Belichick said. “In the end, we just couldn’t quite make enough plays, and that was all on me.”
Here’s the best that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia could explain the decision.
“We just played all the guys we could to try to help us win in whatever packages we had. Different situations came up, and we were just trying to move some things around,” Patricia said. “We just tried to play all the packages that we could to put everybody out there. He was active for the game and anybody that is active for the game is ready to go. We just had a situation where we had some matchups and packages that we went with.”
The questions kept coming. The same answer kept repeating.
“Yeah again, we were just trying to run some packages we had on defense and those guys that were out there were out there for all the situations that we needed them for,” Patricia said. “So, it kind of turned out that way and the game with the way it went and some of the situations that came up, that was just kind of the way it went. Again, we had some guys in different spots that we practiced and in those spots for a couple of weeks. We just felt good about some of those situations that we had out there and some of the matchups that we had that they possessed based on the skill-sets that they have.”
More questions. More obviously misleading answers.
“I mean again, we’re just trying to put everybody in the right spot to make plays, the guys that we thought could make the plays in the right situation,” said Patricia. “We needed enough guys to be active for the game to play. For whatever situation that came up, if he was called upon, he was ready to play in those packages if that situation arose.”
It wouldn’t be fair to crush Patricia for not throwing his head coach under the bus. Patricia’s on to his next job and doesn’t need to light a match before departing. But we simply cannot take his answers at face value.
Even if the Patriots believed they had figured something out in terms of matchups, they’d surely adjust after seeing Richards looking like a lost Pop Warner player or witnessing Bademosi failing to make a very easy tackle on Nelson Agholor on a third down. After all, Butler only got his Super Bowl moment because Kyle Arrington was having an awful day in coverage against the Seahawks.
That’s what the Patriots do. They make the decisions that put the team in position to win the game. Even if that means admitting that the initial game plan was not correct.
That’s not what they did on Sunday night, and they now have a Super Bowl loss.
For an idea of how some of the players handled questions, here’s safety and captain Duron Harmon.
Q: Was it a surprise to not see Malcolm Butler playing?
Harmon: “You have to ask Coach about that. That’s a personnel decision. He makes all the personnel decisions.”
Q: Was the team given a reason for Butler not playing?
Harmon: “You have to ask Coach. Coach makes all the personnel decisions and I just play football.”
Q: Was Butler disappointed with the decision?
Harmon: “Definitely, like you said, everybody wants to play this game. Everybody works hard to play this game and I’m pretty sure that he was a little upset that he didn’t play. Coach Belichick makes all the personnel decisions and he might have felt that was best.”
Q: Did any players ask Belichick to put Butler in the game?
Harmon: “No. Like I said, he’s the head coach who makes all the personnel decisions. If you guys want to ask, you have to ask him.”
Stephon Gilmore, who played well in his role as the No. 1 corner, is not generally a man of many words. He kept to that on Sunday night, but he was asked directly if he believed Butler could have helped the defense if the coaching staff had let him play.
“I mean, he’s a great player, you know?” Gilmore said. “I think he could’ve helped us. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Safety and captain Devin McCourty was asked if having Butler on the field would have helped. He didn’t really answer, instead responding, “It doesn’t matter. … We don’t try to make coaching decisions, and the coaches don’t try to play.”
McCourty did definitely express sympathy for his soon-to-be-former teammate.
“To not be out there I’m sure crushed him,” McCourty said.
Over on the victorious side of the curtain, even in the exuberance of winning, two former teammates of Butler felt badly for him.
“I don’t know what that was about,” said an honest LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 90 yards and a touchdown against his old team. “Obviously he’s a game-changing player. I hope he’s OK and I wish him and them the best.”
Defensive end Chris Long, who shared a huddle with Butler and won a Super Bowl last year, was shocked to learn that Butler didn’t play.
“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.”
Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy was asked a simple question if he knew beforehand whether or not Butler was going to play.
“I’m not a coach,” he said. “I’m a player. I just play.”
Van Noy was then asked a simpler question: Would Butler have helped?
“Like I said, I’m a player, not a coach,” Van Noy replied.
And in what was perhaps the most revealing postgame chat, Eric Rowe revealed that he did not now he’d be starting in the Super Bowl until just before kickoff.
Q: Did you know you’d be starting?
Q: Did the team expect Malcolm Butler to not play?
Rowe: “No, that wasn’t the plan.”
Q: Do you have any idea why Butler didn’t play?
Q: Do you believe Butler is a great player?
Rowe: “Yeah, definitely. He is an amazing player.”
Q: Could the defense have used some help from Butler?
Rowe: “Yeah, we could have used anybody. Whoever the coaches throw in, obviously, we have full confidence in them to affect the game. We could have used anybody.”
Q: What were Butler’s emotions like on the sideline?
Rowe: “Yeah, he is a very emotional guy. He has a lot of passion for the game. It is not often you go to the Super Bowl. I know he has gone a few times, but I feel for him.”
Rowe also said that Butler practiced in multiple packages this past week.
Basically, the Patriots were just as puzzled as the rest of us. Because there’s not a football-related reason in the world that could explain how anyone could play Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi over Malcolm Butler.
What we do know about the matter is that Butler did not fly to Minnesota with the team on Monday. He said he spent some time in the hospital due to flu symptoms, and he joined his teammates on Tuesday. He was listed as a full participant in Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices, despite the illness, and he was removed from the injury report entirely by Friday afternoon.
Butler took warmups on Sunday, after which the coaches told Rowe he was starting. The video boards inside U.S. Bank Stadium captured Butler during the national anthem, covering his face with his hand and appearing to be crying. Whenever the Patriots were on the field on defense, Butler was standing on the sideline, with his helmet on, ready to go. He never got the call.
Butler appeared to be gone from the Patriots last offseason, but a trade never fully materialized with the New Orleans Saints. He signed the restricted free agent tender, reported to work, played more snaps than anyone else, led the team in passes defensed and then took every single snap in two postseason wins. Earlier this week, he expressed a desire to re-sign with the Patriots. But he’s certain to be on another team next season, after the head coach kept him on the sideline in the biggest game of the year.
If there was a reason for this decision to be made, it would be best for it to become public. Because as it stands right now, that decision by one of the greatest football coaches in history will never make one shred of sense.