As the dust settles on the Philadelphia Eagles thrilling Super Bowl LII victory on Sunday night, New England Patriots fans are still wondering why star cornerback Malcolm Butler did not play a defensive snap.
Butler has been a Cinderella story for the Patriots over the past four seasons, going from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowler and the hero of Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks.
The 27-year-old had established himself as one of the cornerstones of New England’s defence – he played 97.8 per cent of the regular-season snaps this season – but he stood on the sidelines and watched helplessly in Minneapolis as the Eagles shredded the Patriots for 538 total yards, 374 of it through the air.
Butler who had been listed with an “illness” in the build-up played only on special teams for the Patriots and was far from happy about it.
Highlights of the Philadelphia Eagles against the New England Patriots from Super Bowl LII
“They gave up on me. It is what it is,” Butler told ESPN’s Mike Reiss after New England’s 41-33 loss.
“I don’t know what it was. I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”
When pressed further, Butler added: “It was a coach’s decision. I was just doing my job and supporting my team-mates. I have nothing to say about the organisation. They gave me an opportunity. That’s about it.”
In Super Bowl XLIX, Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass at the goal line with 26 seconds left to clinch New England’s 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks. At the time, Butler was a little-known undrafted rookie. He subsequently became a mainstay for the Patriots and was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 2015 season.
The Patriots opened the game against the Eagles with Eric Rowe in primary coverage on wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who caught the game’s first touchdown.
New England then made the switch to have Stephon Gilmore shadow Jeffery, his college team-mate at South Carolina, but it became clear after the game that Butler’s Patriots team-mates were baffled by his absence.
“I mean, he’s a great player, you know?” Gilmore said. “I think he could’ve helped us.”
Perhaps more telling was this exchange Rowe had with reporters when questioned about Butler.
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.”
With Butler out, Rowe was targeted a team-high nine times and allowed six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson Bademosi was targeted once and allowed one catch for 17 yards on a key 3rd and 6 play late in the second half when he missed what looked like a routine tackle on Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor that would have brought him down short of the first-down marker. Instead of being forced to punt, Philadelphia scored a touchdown soon after through Corey Clement to go up 29-19.
On the night, Nick Foles completed 28 of 43 pass attempts for 374 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
After their Super Bowl defeat to Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said his players weren't at their best
Bill Belichick was characteristically vague when asked to explain why Butler was benched.
“We put the best players out there and the game plan out there that we thought would be the best tonight,” Belichick said, “Like we always do.”
And Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia also did little to shed any light on the subject.
“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.”
NFL Super Bowl LII Highlights
February 5, 2018, 8:00pm
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Butler, who looked to be in tears during the national anthem, was the subject of trade rumours last offseason, and even visited the New Orleans Saints before ultimately staying put.
He is now scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and his tenure as a New England Patriot seems certain to end in heart-breaking and bizarre fashion.