CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Bill Belichick, right again.
Nine months later, the most confounding and scrutinized decision of Belichick’s glorious tenure as Patriots coach — the benching of Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII while the Philadelphia Eagles took a blowtorch to the New England defense — looks better and better, especially as the Patriots prepare for a reunion with the excommunicated cornerback Sunday in Nashville.
Given Butler’s struggles in his new surroundings, Belichick’s decision not only looks more presentable, it looks prescient. Belichick knew that Butler, like a carton of milk turned bad, was past his use-by date and let him sign with the Titans.
We always say that Belichick prefers to let a player go a year early rather than a year late. How about a game early?
Some of the Foxborough faithful will never get over the coach’s decision not to try Butler in the Super Bowl. It remains unexplained and difficult to swallow that Butler remained on the sideline for all 75 defensive snaps that day while the defense allowed 41 points and five straight scores. It’s like the gridiron grassy knoll, spawning all kinds of conspiracy theories.
No one knows what would have happened if Butler played, but we know what did happen: The Patriots lost while Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards flailed at Philly receivers. But it’s hard to argue that Belichick’s decision does not look better now than it did at the time. It seems posterity always bends the Patriots’ way.
Like his new NFL home, Butler’s play has gone south.
After signing a five-year, $61 million contract as a free agent, he has been the worst cornerback in the NFL, statistically speaking. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler has surrendered 39 catches for 618 yards and 7 touchdowns, the most of any corner in all three categories. For perspective, the Titans defense has allowed a league-low 14 offensive touchdowns this season; Butler is responsible for half of them.
On Monday night against the Cowboys, the erstwhile No. 1 corner had singe marks on his helmet he was burned so badly. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler allowed 8 completions on 11 targets for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns. The second TD on a double move by Dallas’s Allen Hurns had Butler putting his hand on the turf to keep his balance.
The Cowboys are viewed as one of the most receiver-deficient teams in the league. That’s why they traded for Amari Cooper, who promptly earned his Dallas indoctrination by beating Butler for a TD.
This week, Titans coach and former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel fielded questions about doing what Belichick did with Butler — benching him. Vrabel expressed faith in Butler. Still, this is certainly not what astute Titans general manager and former Patriots director of college scouting Jon Robinson had in mind when he brought Butler to Nashville to join former Patriot Logan Ryan in the secondary.
Butler will always have a place in the hearts of Patriots fans for his epic interception to clinch Super XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks. He was the type of rags-to-riches story the Patriots love to propagate, an undrafted free agent out of Division 2 West Alabama plucked from obscurity and molded into a Super Bowl hero and Pro Bowl and All-Pro cornerback. It’s a great Cinderella story.
But this “Malcolm, Go” decision looks like the right call, too.
Belichick has never operated out of sentiment or by track record. He has an uncanny ability to identify a decline in player performance before anyone else.
In hindsight, he was right when he parted ways with Vrabel, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, Jamie Collins, and Nate Solder, to name a few. You wonder whether Rob Gronkowski will be next on that list.
Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins remain debatable decisions, but those qualified more as salary-cap management than pure player evaluations. Plus, in both cases, the return was good (Solder and Trey Flowers).
There is life after Patriot Place, as Ty Law, Adam Vinatieri, Asante Samuel, and Chandler Jones, to name a few, have proven. Belichick probably would like a do-over with Deion Branch because both sides were better off staying together, and that decision probably cost the Patriots a Super Bowl season in 2006.
But more often than not, it’s Belichick, right again, in situations like Butler’s.
Full disclosure: I thought the Patriots were making a mistake when they made Butler play out last season on his $3.91 million first-round restricted free agent contract instead of rewarding him with a lucrative contract. That decision seems to be the line of demarcation in Butler’s play.
He pressed last season to show he was worth the money, gambling too often to try to make plays. That style of play has continued even after he got his payday. The psychological pressure of a prove-it situation messed with his mind and his technique.
Maybe lightning would have struck twice if the Patriots had rolled the dice on Butler in Super Bowl LII as they did in Super Bowl XLIX when Kyle Arrington struggled against Seattle receiver Chris Matthews. We’ll never know.
It was baffling when Belichick benched a player who had played 97.8 percent of the snaps during the regular season and 100 percent of the defensive snaps in the playoffs up until that point.
You can still argue that Butler couldn’t have been less effective than Bademosi or Richards. You can still argue that Belichick didn’t try absolutely everything to win.
But Butler has made Belichick’s decision look more and more understandable.
It’s not a mystery that Belichick recognized a downturn in Butler’s game before anyone else.
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