February 1st, 2015, the day of Super Bowl 49: At the start of the game, Malcolm Butler was the fifth cornerback on New England’s depth chart. Behind Darrell Revis, Brandon Browner, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington, it seemed Butler would not get a sniff of the field. After Brandon Browner was forced to match up with Seahawks receiver Chris Mathews and Kyle Arrington was benched for poor play, #21 slid into the slot-corner role. We all know what happens next.
During the following off-season, the Patriots seemed to be relatively quiet. During free-agency, New England let both Revis and Browner walk away and sign deals with new teams without finding any replacements. In the 2015 draft, the team used seven of their selections on the defensive side of the ball, none of which they decided to take a cornerback. It seemed Belichick was comfortable with both the short and long-term solutions at the position.
Fast forward to the 2015-2016 training camp: In just six months, Malcolm Butler had earned a starting spot on the Patriot roster. Bill Belichick and the staff had enough confidence in the 25-year-old to give him the number one cornerback spot on the depth chart after the departure of Revis and Browner. Many fans doubted the legitimacy of Butler’s talent and questioned if he was really just a one-play-wonder, but the head coach showed his full support in the corner.
Belichick and company praised Butler for his football IQ as well as his determination to be the best possible player he could be. His story was something straight out of an ESPN 30 for 30. A young kid out of Junior College. Butler went from being an employee at Pop-Eyes to Super Bowl Champion. Unable to qualify for a Division 1 school to having one of the highest IQs on the football field. He went into the 2015 season and did not disappoint.
During his first year as the number one cornerback, Butler shined. He started all 16 games, and was named to the Pro-Bowl, as well as being named to the AP All-Pro Second Team. Belichick had once again proven his knack for finding talent in players who everyone else had written off. Butler was known as a grinder and a fighter. Someone who did not take plays off and showed up every day for practice, giving all he had for the team.
Not much had changed during the 2016-17 season: Butler still remained the number one cornerback and played well alongside Logan Ryan. While he did not make the Pro-Bowl, Butler did start all 16 games, recording four interceptions. During Super Bowl 51, Butler allowed only one catch as him and the Patriots took home another Super Bowl trophy. As the off-season approached, many believed two seasons of dominance was enough to earn Butler a contract extension.
New England had many different options during the off-season with Malcolm Butler. The most obvious seemed to keep him happy, give him a good contract offer, and have him take a small hometown discount to be the cornerback of the future. A second option would be to not sign to qualifying offer and let Butler walk freely, which would please Butler, but would make no sense for the team.
As the first day of free-agency hit, New England did something no one expected. The team signed free-agent Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $75-million-dollar deal. The Patriots made a big splash at the cornerback position during free-agency, but it was not on Malcolm Butler. Instead of giving the money to the hard-working cornerback who clinched a Super Bowl title for the franchise, the Patriots spent it on the former Buffalo Bill who’s zone-cover skills were questioned around the league.
As it would for most, the signing upset Butler, who thought he would get a contract similar to Gilmore’s. Instead, New England signed the qualifying offer for 3.91 million dollars and waited for Butler to sign it. Instead, Butler and his agent fought for a big contract offer from the Patriots. Due to the fact it would now cost teams a first-round draft pick and around $15 million a year for the corner due to the tender, there was very little interest league-wide.
Then, New England began exploring options to trade Butler, putting their trust in Stephon Gilmore as the new number one corner of the future. The Patriots entered negotiations with the Saints, with Brandin Cooks as the name being focused on. While Cooks may have been an answer for most teams with a weakness of throwing the ball downfield, he wasn’t necessarily the ideal Patriot receiver. His speed and quickness were impressive, but his route running and fight for the ball was lacking; the two skills that defined Patriot receivers throughout the dynasty.
From Butler’s perspective, he was being replaced by a man who he proved better than over the last two seasons. They decided to pay a new player, instead of one who spent three years in the system. Then, New England tried to trade him for another player who did not seem to fit their system. Instead of trading Butler, New England ended up giving up their first-round pick for Brandin Cooks. As the season approached, Butler eventually signed the tender as it was getting clear that teams did not want to give up a first rounder just for an opportunity to sign him. He would go on to share a locker room with the two men New England tried to replace him with.
The 2017 season: despite the contract issues, Butler played in all 16 games in the regular season. While his numbers were not as good as his first two years, he continued to be a consistent name on the defensive side of the ball. The same could not be said about his counterparts. Gilmore struggled early on and then missed four games early in the season with a concussion/knee injury in which the severity was never stated. Brandin Cooks did have over 1,000 receiving yards on the season, but his weaknesses showed as he transitioned to a much different Patriot offense. Dropping passes and running un-even routes became an issue.
As the tension between Butler and Belichick/upper management grew, it became a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Many believed not offering Butler a contract was a statement made by Belichick to show he was just another system-player who could be replaced by another undrafted rookie. The people Butler’s camp believed he was truly worth the all of the money and his success had more to do with his work ethic rather than Bill’s system.
By the time the Patriots entered the 2017 playoffs, the Butler-Belichick saga was inevitably coming to an end. Stephon Gilmore took over as the man who was in charge of the opposing team’s best receiver. Butler had taken a secondary role and was noticeably unhappy.
As the Super Bowl approached, both Butler and Belichick knew this would be the cornerback’s last game as a Patriot. Butler became frustrated and began to not care. According to reports, he showed up late to team meetings, was found with marijuana in his hotel room and was in attendance at the Rick Ross concert on Friday night.
As Butler openly showed he did not care about the team anymore, Belichick saw an opportunity. He saw an opportunity to not only win a Super Bowl, but to make a statement as well. The statement to show Malcolm Butler he was not worth the money, was made just minutes before opening kick-off as Belichick approached Eric Rowe to tell him he was starting in place of Malcolm Butler. This would be the first game Butler has not started in three seasons.
The image of Malcolm Butler crying during the National Anthem minutes before the start of the Super Bowl, showed all of the emotion of three years with a franchise being let out. A man who gave his all to a team for years, stayed even as his replacements settled in, only to finally get replaced in the one game in which he worked so hard to get to.
Whether one may agree with the punishment or not, there is a lesson to be learned here. Malcolm Butler was someone who was praised for always having a chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove everyone wrong. All of his hard work led up to this one game. It was then all taken away from him because of one or two mistakes which seemed small at the time. For the first time in his life, Butler thought he was bigger than the team, and it cost him a chance to change another Super Bowl.
As for Belichick, there is another lesson to be learned here. As a man that preaches discipline, Bill Belichick does not let many things slide in his organization. However, he has decided to turn a blind eye to things that have happened to past players. Rob Gronkowski partying with a hurt ankle the night after a Super Bowl loss. Michael Floyd being signed as an unnecessary part of the receiving core shortly after being arrested for DUI. James Harrison was reportedly asleep during team meetings before he signed in New England. Yet, Bill had no problem signing or keeping any of these players.
Malcolm Butler didn’t do anything illegal. He didn’t get into a fistfight, or drive a car while under the influence. He didn’t tweet trash talk about the opposing team, or post a Facebook live video of the locker room. This wasn’t a good look for Butler by any means, but was it really worth a full benching on Super Bowl Sunday?
This wasn’t a football move. Anyone with a half of a football brain can tell a sick/unprepared Malcolm Butler would have without-a-doubt played better defense than Jordan Richards or special-teams-specialist Johnson Bademosi. This was a statement by Belichick that he assumed would not hurt the team. Instead, it cost him and the franchise it’s sixth Super Bowl title.
At the end of the season, both Butler and Belichick will get what they wanted all along. Butler will receive a large contract with a team who trusts him to be their number one corner. As for Bill, he will get exactly what he wanted: Malcolm Butler off his team.
Photo: Sports Illustrated