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Patriots push rules to limit with benching of Malcolm Butler

FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots have forged a well-earned reputation across the NFL for knowing the rules better than most teams, and exploiting the loopholes within those rules.

We saw it in the playoffs last year with their eligible/ineligible tactics against the Ravens. We saw it in January 2004, when their defensive backs mugged Colts receivers en route to an AFC Championship game victory.

The Patriots often go right up to the edge of what’s allowable. Sometimes, though, they push things too far and get in trouble.

They got a significant slap on the wrist in 2007 when they were caught videotaping the Jets’ signals from the stands, as all teams were told not to do. They were handed an incredibly harsh punishment for deflating footballs before this January’s AFC Championship game, as alleged by Roger Goodell and the NFL office.


And now they might have gone too far with this Malcolm Butler situation.

Butler, the Super Bowl hero, was knocked down a peg by Bill Belichick the past couple of weeks. He was not allowed to practice on the field with his teammates during voluntary offseason workouts after arriving late to practice three weeks ago.

The delay was mostly out of Butler’s control — weather issues in Jackson, Miss., and Atlanta grounded his flights — but Belichick doesn’t really care for excuses. He expects players to prepare for worst-case scenarios and show up on time. In Belichick’s mind, Butler should have planned his flights a day earlier, to give himself a buffer in case of inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances.

Butler has been at Gillette Stadium every day the past three weeks, participating in workouts, position meetings, and film study. But when it was time to hit the field, Butler was told to take a seat, missing six practices in two weeks.


Belichick allowed him to return to the field this week, and Butler was out there Thursday afternoon, working with the starting defense as he seeks to win one of the cornerback spots vacated by Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.

“You take anything from somebody that they love, so yeah it was tough,” Butler said. “But, you know, it is what it is.”

On the surface, the punishment isn’t that big of a deal. Belichick has always been a stickler for time. Brandon Spikes was placed on injured reserve for missing a team meeting after a snowstorm; Jonas Gray was benched for oversleeping one day; and even a superstar like Revis was sent home for the day after arriving late to practice.

Belichick must have been itching for an excuse to humble Butler, an unknown, undrafted rookie last year before he made the Interception Heard ’Round The World. Butler has been a media superstar since the Super Bowl, appearing on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” presenting an award at the Grammys, receiving Tom Brady’s Super Bowl MVP truck, getting a parade back home in Mississippi, and getting a special shout-out from President Obama.

But Belichick is counting on Butler to play a much bigger role in the defense this year, and needs him to forget the Super Bowl hype and come back ready to work harder than ever.

Butler didn’t want to comment on whether he felt the punishment was fair, but he seems to have learned his lesson and wants to put this behind him.


“This [is] a big opportunity, don’t want to mess up,” he said. “So, you know, I’ve got to prepare myself the best way I can. So that’s what I’m [going to] do.”

Malcolm Butler participated in drills at Thursday’s practice.
Malcolm Butler participated in drills at Thursday’s practice.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

But the NFL Players Association won’t let this incident go without a full review. During this portion of the NFL calendar, practices are supposed to be voluntary, and the union will investigate the matter to make sure the Patriots complied with the rules.

Rule 21.5.A of the collective bargaining agreement states: “No Club official may indicate to a player that the Club’s offseason workout program or classroom instruction is not voluntary (or that a player’s failure to participate in a workout program or classroom instruction will result in the player’s failure to make the Club or result in any other adverse consequences affecting his working conditions).”

Did the Patriots violate the rule by punishing Butler? It’s debatable. But the NFLPA is right to not let this go without looking into it.

If practice this time of the year is truly voluntary, should the Patriots be allowed to keep Butler off the field for two weeks? Was Butler’s benching an implicit message to the rest of the team that OTAs are (wink-wink) “voluntary”?

The Patriots will argue that Butler was still allowed to participate in “organized team activities” since he still did the workouts and film study every day. They’ll argue that there is nothing in the CBA that guarantees a player must take on-field practice reps during OTAs.


They’ll argue that they punished Butler for being tardy, not for not participating. They’ll probably argue that despite the punishment, it didn’t hurt Butler’s chances of winning one of the starting cornerback jobs.

And they’re smart enough that they still probably paid Butler his $195 per day, the standard pay for every player who participates in OTAs. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much discussion. They’d be in big trouble.

Did the Patriots violate the letter of the rule? Probably not.

But did they violate the spirit of the rule and push things a little too far?

The NFLPA owes it to Butler and the other 2,000 players across the league to find out.


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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin