By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I’m going to be honest with you: I’m having a difficult time assessing the Patriots’ 2017 season and their Super Bowl loss. I just can’t get past the image of Malcolm Butler being glued to the sideline, while his teammates got torched up and down the field all night by Nick Foles, all because of what Bill Belichick deemed to be a football decision.
It doesn’t make sense. And I can’t fully buy it.
I know that Malcolm Butler in 2017 was not nearly as good as Malcolm Butler in 2016 or Malcolm Butler in 2015. I get it. When I see that Pro Football Focus had Butler ranked as the 58th-best cornerback in 2015, the 23rd-best cornerback in 2016, and the 92nd-best cornerback in 2017, I believe those rankings generally check out. Would I like to have 91 other cornerbacks on my team before I sign Butler? No. But I get it; he wasn’t spectacular in 2017.
That being said, at no point from Week 1 through the AFC title game did Belichick, Matt Patricia or anybody on the Patriots’ coaching staff decide to treat Butler any differently than they did in the previous two seasons. He took the most defensive snaps in the regular season, as he was on the field for 97.83 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He played a full 100 percent of the snaps in 11 games, and the only game in which he took less than 96 percent of the snaps came in Week 2’s win in New Orleans. In the divisional round against Tennessee, he was one of three players to take 100 percent of the snaps. In the conference championship against Jacksonville, he was one of four players to take 100 percent of the defensive snaps.
Then in the Super Bowl, he took zero defensive snaps. Not one. He played defense as much as Tom Brady and Rob Gronowski did. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski actually recorded more tackles than Butler.
Meanwhile, Jordan Richards went from getting six snaps in the AFC title game to getting 16 snaps in the Super Bowl; he was exposed badly. Bademosi went from getting zero snaps in the AFC title game to getting 11 snaps in the Super Bowl; he, too, could not perform. Cornerback Eric Rowe played in just eight games during the season, and he took more than 53 percent of the snaps just three times. In the first playoff game, he saw an increased role, taking 78 percent of the snaps against Tennessee. That dipped to 62 percent of the snaps against Jacksonville. In the Super Bowl, he was on the field for 95 percent of New England’s defensive snaps.
All the while, Butler stood on the sideline, with his helmet on, looking ready to play. He never got a shot.
It won’t ever make sense.
At the same time, Belichick has quite a bit of cachet stored, to the point where it’s worth investigating and trying to at least find a logical reason why this otherwise preposterous decision might have been made.
We might never get the full, honest answer from Belichick, but it turns out that the AFC Championship Game tape against Jacksonville does provide some reason why the Patriots might have lost trust in having Butler on the field.
By far, Butler’s worst play of the afternoon came on the first snap of the second quarter. On a first-and-10 from the New England 28, the Patriots appeared to be in Cover 3, which left Butler responsible for the third of the field on the defense’s left. He communicated somewhat frantically with Patrick Chung prior to the snap, indicating some level of miscommunication.
Tight end Ben Koyack motioned toward the line, and Butler followed him, indicating he seemed to believe he was in man coverage on the tight end.
At the snap, Koyack ran directly behind the line of scrimmage to the opposite side of the field, and Butler followed him, thus leaving an entire third of the field vacated.
The play went for 24 yards and moved the Jaguars down to the Patriots’ 4-yard line. (You can watch it here.) They scored a touchdown on the very next play.
Of course, to blame Butler for this play, we have to assume the Patriots were in Cover 3. Based on Stephon Gilmore staying on his side of the field and allowing Keelan Cole to break inside, and based on Devin McCourty covering the deep middle of the field, that seems to be a fair assumption. There is a case to be made that perhaps James Harrison should have switched from covering the tight end to the running back — like this video does at the 20-second mark. But given Harrison’s general assignments in his brief time with the Patriots, it’s unlikely he was asked to cover a running back in man coverage in space.
So, if indeed Butler was supposed to be in Cover 3, this was a major breakdown.
There were some other plays, too, on which Butler didn’t look great.
On a screen pass to Grant, Butler got completely eliminated from the play by Marqise Lee. Butler actually turned his back to the play and ran up the field to try to avoid getting blocked, but he ended up getting put on his rear end.
Grant gained 20 yards on the play.
The Jaguars later decided to run a screen to Butler’s side. This time, Butler didn’t get completely eliminated from the play, but he was nevertheless blocked well by Lee.
Butler pleaded with the officials for a holding flag, but he did not get it. That play went for 15 yards.
Late in the second quarter, Blake Bortles did connect with Cole for a gain of 26 yards up the right sideline, with Butler in man coverage. That was a well-placed ball, though, and Butler’s coverage wasn’t bad.
In the third quarter, Butler lost Lee on a deep comeback route up the sideline, but Bortles’ pass flew about 10 yards out of bounds. On the drive after that, Butler chased Lee out of a trips formation on a shallow crossing route and trailed by two steps the entire time. Bortles hit Lee in stride, and the play went for 18 yards. It was a well-designed play for the Jaguars. Later on that drive, the Jaguars ran to Butler’s side. Though he avoided getting blocked by left tackle Cam Robinson, Butler didn’t stick his nose in the play, as Leonard Fournette ran by for a gain of 14 yards.
In looking at every single one of Butler’s 74 snaps against Jacksonville, those are the half-dozen or so snaps where Butler did not look good.
But there were a number of snaps where Butler played very well. He jarred a ball free from Lee to force an early third-down incompletion, manned his zone well on a coverage sack in the second quarter, he slipped off the block of a wide receiver to step into the backfield and tackle Fournette at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, and he covered Lee in man coverage step-for-step on a deep post on a third-down play that helped lead to an incompletion elsewhere on the field. He also ran a few blitzes, one of which contributed to a third-down incompletion.
Like many games from Butler in 2017, there were ups and there were downs. But that apparent blown assignment early on stood out the most.
Now, all of this being said, these reasons only cover Belichick and the Patriots to a certain point. Maybe they didn’t like Butler as a starter, and they wanted to limit his snaps, like they did in Week 2 in New Orleans. Maybe they liked other matchups. That’s fine. That’s what coaching is all about.
But coaching is also about making adjustments. When Eric Rowe was getting roasted by Alshon Jeffery early in the Super Bowl, the Patriots switched Stephon Gilmore to the assignment. Jeffery was quiet for the rest of the night. Likewise, when Richards was hurting the team, and when Bademosi was failing to execute basic fundamentals of the game, the Patriots needed to insert Butler into the game. The game plan had failed, and it was time for a change.
That part of Butler’s benching, we don’t quite know. We might not ever know. But as far as the initial plan to not include Butler in the game? Well, there is at least some visible basis that might help explain why Belichick and the Patriots felt a change was needed for the biggest game of the year.