Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff
MINNEAPOLIS — It remains almost shocking.
If Malcolm Butler was healthy, as the Patriots contend, and if Butler wasn’t sitting for disciplinary reasons, as the Patriots contend, and if the decision not to play him in the biggest game of the year was strictly a football decision, as the Patriots contend, then the decision to sit him on defense in a 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Eagles remains nearly inexplicable.
No Patriots defensive player spent more time on the field than Malcolm Butler this year. During the regular season, the cornerback played 1,037 of the team’s 1,060 defensive snaps. He was on the field for every one of the team’s 141 defensive snaps in playoff wins over the Titans and Jaguars.
He represented a defensive fixture. Members of the Patriots defense viewed him as capable of handling one-on-one coverage of an opposing receiver in a way that gave structure to the entire unit.
“I feel like we’ve got a couple [of shutdown corners], [Stephon Gilmore] and Malcolm — when you have that on your team, knowing you don’t have to worry about that guy over there going for 150 yards and two touchdowns, it does something for your defense,” said cornerback Eric Rowe. “It lets the linebackers worry about what they need to worry about, it lets the defensive line worry about what they need to worry about stopping the run and rushing the passer, and it lets the safeties know, ‘We’ve just got to do our job.’ ”
Just days after Rowe offered that assessment, he was on the field in place of Butler to open Super Bowl LII. The decision not to have Butler — the Super Bowl XLIX hero — on the field for a single defensive snap will echo, particularly given that the decision not to start or play Butler represented a surprise development to Patriots players.
“That wasn’t the plan,” said Rowe, who said that the decision for him to start “wasn’t official until kickoff. . . . We could have used anybody. . . . [Butler] is an amazing player.”
“He could have helped us, maybe,” said Gilmore. “We rotated in practice a lot, but you have to ask the coaches. [Sitting Butler] is the coaches’ decision.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said repeatedly that Butler’s absence was a result of the team’s efforts to feature the best personnel for the packages they were trying to use. Yet the Eagles didn’t hesitate in showing their giddiness at taking shots at Butler’s replacement.
In their first drive of the game, the Eagles targeted Rowe three times on third down — a 17-yard completion to Alshon Jeffery on third and 4, a 15-yard connection with Torrey Smith on third and 12, and a pass breakup in the end zone on third and goal from the 7-yard line. In Philadelphia’s second drive, quarterback Nick Foles saw Rowe on an island with Jeffery and went deep, allowing Jeffery to haul in a 34-yard touchdown over the defensive back.
Those two drives set the stage for a very bad night for the Patriots’ cornerbacks tasked with replacing Butler. According to Pro Football Focus analyst Zoltan Buday, the Eagles completed 10 of 13 passes (76.9 percent) for 177 yards and a touchdown when targeting Rowe (9 attempts), Jordan Richards (3), and Johnson Bademosi (1). While Gilmore gave up little, the cornerbacks playing opposite him were exploited early and often.
So what might the Patriots’ logic have been?
Philadelphia had noted the potential size advantage of its receiving corps during the week, and at a listed height of 6 feet 1 inch, Rowe is taller than Butler. Moreover, Butler unquestionably had an uneven year. According to Buday, opposing quarterbacks had a 103.3 passer rating when targeting Butler during the year, and he allowed a career-high eight touchdowns.
That said, those numbers often were elevated by the quality of his opposing receivers, such as when Julio Jones of the Falcons ripped what would have been an interception out of Butler’s hands for a touchdown in October. He was also a fixture on the field as the Patriots defense solidified over the second half of the season.
Rowe (99.6 opposing passer rating) and Bademosi (100.2) had slightly better numbers on the season, though both were on the field as corners chiefly in nickel and dime packages.
Put another way: It didn’t come as a surprise that Butler was on the field for nearly every down of every game. His absence Sunday came as a huge surprise to members of the Patriots, to Butler, and to the Eagles.
“After the first series or two. We were like, ‘This guy’s not in the game! They have 23 [Patrick Chung] in there. That’s crazy!’ ” an Eagles offensive assistant told Andy Benoit of MMQB.
Butler was on the sideline at the start of one game — Week 2 against the Saints, a 36-20 Patriots victory in which Rowe and Gilmore opened the game at the corners — but a) Drew Brees torched the Patriots for 356 yards, two touchdowns, and a 99.9 passer rating, and b) Butler still ended up playing 49 of the 65 defensive snaps (75.4 percent). There simply wasn’t a precedent this year for the Patriots to abandon Butler so completely.
And that lack of precedent makes the Patriots’ Super Bowl decision utterly opaque, a mystery whose resolution remains impossible without more clues.
Nick Foles’s numbers against Patriots cornerbacks on Sunday night show that Malcolm Butler might have made a difference.
|WHEN PATRIOTS CORNERBACKS WERE TARGETED IN SUPER BOWL LII|
Source: Zoltan Buday, Pro Football Focus
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