NASHVILLE — Everyone knows what happened to Malcolm Butler in 2018. His story played out in front of the world.
Butler got benched in the Super Bowl, humiliated in front of more than 100 million viewers.
He also signed a life-changing contract with the Tennessee Titans — a five-year, $61.2 million deal in March, with $24 million guaranteed over the first two seasons.
What no one knows, though, is what comes next for Malcolm Butler.
The man who once got kicked out of community college, worked at Popeye’s, landed at a Division 2 school, went undrafted, got a tryout from the Patriots, and scratched and clawed his way to a spot in the NFL, finally made it big.
How does a man who came from nothing, who worked his whole life for this moment, react to a life-changing contract?
“I think the best answer to that is the day after he came in and signed, I sat down at my desk and I noticed somebody moving on the field,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said last week. “And I looked out the window, and I was like, ‘Who is running sprints?’ And it’s Malcolm. It’s 7 a.m., this guy just signed a multimillion-dollar contract, and he’s running sprints on our practice field in March.”
The other question Butler needs to answer this year: How does he not let the Super Bowl benching define him?
Butler wants to move on, but six months later he still can’t escape the questions. He tried to address it head-on in March when he signed, acknowledging that he “wasn’t feeling too well” leading up to the game, and he wasn’t “locked in and focused 100 percent.” He has fielded questions about it through minicamp, and this summer, and through the first three weeks of training camp.
Butler has tried to remain patient, though it hasn’t been easy. Two weeks ago he joked that “every reporter shooting their shot . . . and what I tell everybody is just ‘coach’s decision.’ ”
Now even Butler’s teammates and bosses are tired of the questions.
“He’s tried to [move on] but you guys keep bringing it up. Good grief, holy moly,” Robinson said with a chuckle. “It’s a new team, it’s a new season. Yeah, it was the biggest game of the year. You know he didn’t play in it. That’s in his past. Close the chapter, turn the page.”
Butler’s approach has been to take the high road. He has had every opportunity to rip Bill Belichick for the decision to bench him, or to rip the Patriots’ organization for embarrassing him and potentially torpedoing his free agent value.
But Butler doesn’t. All offseason, he has not said a bad word about the Patriots.
“That could do nothing but mess myself up, bro,” Butler said on Thursday, following a training camp practice. “All that would do is cause more confusion and things like that. Those people were good to me while I was there. It didn’t end the right way, but I’m a Tennessee Titan, I have moved on from that. I’ve got nothing but respect for those guys.”
It’s not just lip service, either. Everyone in Butler’s inner circle remains grateful to the Patriots and the opportunity they gave Butler.
“At the end of the day, you have to give Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, and those guys a lot of credit,” said Johnny Jackson, Butler’s trainer and mentor since his college days at West Alabama. “Nobody took a chance on Malcolm Butler, so you’ve got to be grateful for that. Those guys changed his life. I respect [Belichick] because he said, ‘I did what I did, and I made the decision that I thought was best for the team.’ ”
Butler has nothing but good things to say about his four years in New England, which included two Super Bowl wins and his life-changing interception. Belichick called Butler to congratulate him after he signed with the Titans.
“I had a great time. I really did,” Butler said. “They gave me a shot. At the end of the day, it’s just business. Just got to deal with it, move on, take your L.”
Butler will see the Patriots in Week 10 when they come to Nashville for a game. He doesn’t know how he will handle the emotions.
“I can’t predict the future,” he said. “But it’s on the way.”
Those closest to Butler acknowledge that he wasn’t himself the last two seasons, when his contract and his future weighed heavily on him.
“He didn’t really play like Malcolm Butler,” Jackson said. “He didn’t react as fast, he was terrible on the ball, he didn’t make the picks. He had some nice breakups and a couple nice games, but we knew that something was going on with him, and he wasn’t playing fast like Malcolm Butler plays fast.”
Jackson, who trained Butler in Tuscaloosa, Ala., this summer like always, believes that Butler’s mind is clear now that the contract is taken care of. He believes it’s no coincidence that Butler became a household name in 2014, and a Pro Bowler in 2015, when he wasn’t worried about his contract.
“We’ve talked about that, that he could just act like the same competitive, undrafted free agent that you did four years ago, that we’d all be happy,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “He’s done that. He’s competed. We’re all going to give up plays in this league, it’s how competitive he is each and every day.”
In the Titans’ first camp practice in late July, Butler ripped the ball out of receiver Corey Davis’s arms for an interception, then punted the ball away in manic celebration. The play went viral on social media.
“He’s playing free, he’s not thinking,” Jackson said. “To me, this is vintage 2014 Malcolm. He doesn’t have any pressure on him. I sent him a message and I said, ‘It’s about damn time. That’s 2014.’ ”
Butler still doesn’t 100 percent know the reasons behind his benching, but he is convinced it was for football reasons, as Belichick said. Don’t forget that Butler was also benched to start the Week 2 game against New Orleans last year because the coaches didn’t like his matchups. But he still played 49 snaps in that game because of an injury to Eric Rowe.
Butler thought the same thing would happen in the Super Bowl. He played 98 percent of the snaps all season. Of course he would get in the game.
He didn’t, though, as he played just one snap on the punt team all game. And it hurt, no question. Butler left the locker room in a huff, made a brief comment to ESPN about how he would have been able to help the Patriots, and vanished from New England forever. The Super Bowl XLIX hero became a Super Bowl LII goat.
Butler didn’t shy away from using the Super Bowl snub for motivation this offseason.
“People are scared to talk about it, but if you’re any kind of competitor, don’t you think that’s going to light a fire under you?” Jackson said. “It was hurtful talking to him. I said, ‘Everything is a test. You’ve got to pull yourself up and go dominate like you know how to dominate.’ ”
But Butler can move on now, because the benching didn’t hurt him in his quest for a big contract. It didn’t prevent Matt Patricia and the Lions from reaching out to Butler’s camp at the start of free agency. It didn’t prevent Robinson and Vrabel, both former Patriots, from signing Butler to a big deal.
“We’ve talked about this numerous times — fairly comfortable with the decision that we’ve made,” Vrabel said.
In the actual negotiation between the Titans and Butler’s camp, the Super Bowl benching never came up. The team did all of its investigating beforehand.
“I’d say we did enough to feel comfortable about adding him to our team,” Robinson said. “We got the feeling with Malcolm that he was going to come in and he was going to buy in to what we’re about, and hopefully be a good player for us on the field and be good in the community.”
“Every player has ups and downs throughout their career, and we felt he was a good fit for us.”
Did Robinson speak directly with Belichick about the benching?
“We did our research,” he said.
Butler has a new motivational slogan for 2018:
“Clean slate, but a heavy plate,” he said.
The Titans are expecting a lot out of him as their new highly paid cornerback. They reached the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons last year, and Butler is joining forces with Logan Ryan again to try to get the Titans over the hump.
“Malcolm is Malcolm. He’s competing extremely hard and making plays like he’s always done,” Ryan said. “He’s got more to prove. ‘Made’ is relative. He probably made it after being Super Bowl MVP. It’s another year to work, another year to shut down receivers and compete.”
And another year to prove that neither the Super Bowl benching, nor his life-changing contract, will define him.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.