Malcolm Butler never lashed out publicly at Bill Belichick after his surprise benching in Super Bowl LII.
He never took a shot at the Patriots after leaving for Tennessee. Never said he had the Patriots game circled on his calendar. Never talked about how the Patriots could have ruined his free agency and cost him millions.
It’s why Butler is back in Foxborough in 2022, competing for a starting cornerback spot four years after one of the worst days of his life.
“One thing I learned, man, you never burn your bridges down,” Butler said Monday as the Patriots opened their voluntary offseason workout program at Gillette Stadium. “I’m pretty sure I made a good decision by acting like a grown man.”
The Patriots gave Butler his first chance in the NFL as an undrafted rookie, and now they’re giving him a career lifeline. Butler, 32, was out of football since August when he retired as a member of the Cardinals at the end of training camp.
Butler said Belichick contacted his agent last month, which led to a workout with the Patriots, and a few days later, a two-year deal that will pay him between $2.5 million and $4.5 million each season. But only $750,000 is guaranteed, so Butler will have to make the team.
“I didn’t sit on the couch all offseason,” Butler said. “I’m confident in myself, and I wouldn’t be here if the Patriots didn’t think the same.”
Butler’s return to the Patriots is a move that few people, including Butler, saw coming.
“It came as a surprise. It really did,” he said. “Just blessed to be here, and I’m dedicated and I’m committed.”
Butler’s benching in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles — after he played in 98 percent of snaps throughout the season — was a humiliating way to end his four-year tenure with the Patriots. He was emotional as he left the stadium that night, and within two months he had signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Titans.
But Butler never spoke out against Belichick or the Patriots. The next training camp, Butler told the Globe, “Those people were good to me … I’ve got nothing but respect for those guys.”
After the Titans beat the Patriots in the fall of 2018, Butler said, “It wasn’t personal. They showed me nothing but love.”
Butler said Monday he and Belichick didn’t talk about the Super Bowl when they spoke last month.
“We just talked about the contract,” Butler said. “And he asked me, was I all in and ready to play? I told him yeah, I am. He said, ‘I know you took a year off and the transition is going to be hard,’ but he knows I’m up for the challenge.
“I can take that challenge, I can come in here and work hard and take on any role.”
Butler and Belichick didn’t need to talk about the benching this time, because Butler said that he and Belichick spoke about it privately shortly after the Super Bowl four years ago.
“We had a talk about it like grown men, and that’s what we did,” Butler said. “I ain’t perfect, but I was brought up with respect, and anything I need to say with somebody, I address them.”
Butler wouldn’t expound on what was said back then, nor did he want to speak about the benching. Belichick’s decision may have been as simple as Butler being sick the week before the game, not being locked in with the game plan, missing the team flight, and having a bad week of practice.
But to most, it remains an unsolved mystery.
“I’ve moved forward from that,” Butler said. “I know it will always be there, but I haven’t said anything to anybody about anything. You’ll have to keep doing your research or whatever you got to do. I’m here for the Patriots, and I’m here to be peaceful.”
Butler’s career has entailed much more than a Super Bowl benching, of course. He began as a Super Bowl hero, becoming an instant sensation as a rookie after intercepting Russell Wilson on the goal line in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XLIX, clinching the Patriots’ win over the Seahawks.
Butler became a starter for the Patriots over the next three seasons, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2015 and second-team All-Pro in 2016.
Despite the Super Bowl benching, Butler still cashed in with the Titans that March, and started 36 games with nine interceptions over three seasons. In 2021, he signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals, and was slated to be a significant contributor, but he retired at the end of training camp for personal reasons.
“Belichick always says do what’s best for the team, and at that time I think I did what’s best for me and my family,” Butler said. “If you’re not prepared mentally, you can’t do nothing physically, so I think I made the right decision by doing that.”
But after six months home, Butler jumped at the chance to join the Patriots this offseason. His workout Monday, his first in four years in Foxborough, was like old times.
“It felt like I was here yesterday,” he said. “One thing I know about the New England Patriots, the hard work is still here. I’m pretty sure I’m going to sleep well tonight.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.