NASHVILLE — You know how, after something bad happens, there’s that perfect amount of time that needs to pass before, suddenly, the bad thing becomes a source of humor? It needs to be just long enough that whatever happened is squarely in the past but not so long that joking about it loses its potential for catharsis.
Enter Malcolm Butler, coming off the field from Titans practice Thursday, 557 days after his benching in Super Bowl LII two Februarys ago marred what would be his final game as a Patriot. It also forced the question “Which one?” to any mention of “The Malcolm Butler Game.”
Butler, publicly, has been angry about what happened. The cornerback has also, at other times, been quiet or dismissive or resolute in his assurances that it wasn’t a big deal. On Thursday he was something new: He was funny about it.
“No regrets at all,” Butler said. “I mean, I graded out at 99 percent on one punt return rep.”
If you’re missing the back story here, Butler got in Super Bowl LII for just one special teams snap in the stunning loss to the Eagles. He did not play on defense. He was deployed as a jammer, a perimeter player who jams the coverage team’s gunner from the line of scrimmage and then runs with him down the field to slow his path to the returner, on the lone punt of the game, early in the second quarter.
“I know the guy was real fast and I went 100 percent,” Butler said.
He cracked himself up. The small group around Butler was laughing, too, genuine laughs tinged with a hint of disbelief that, suddenly, this was easy to joke about. If there was any trust lost in the Patriot Way after Super Bowl LII, Super Bowl LIII seems to have restored it in New England. But even that didn’t quite bring closure to the Butler mystery. He was reminded that Patriots fans still talk about it and talk about whether they’ll ever get an explanation. He was asked if he ever did.
“Where the hoodie at?” he answered, jokingly looking around for Bill Belichick, who benched Butler on defense.
Other than a couple bromides about how it wasn’t such a big deal as everyone made out, Butler was more relaxed and earnest than he typically was as a Patriot. He talked about feeling grateful for his time in New England, how he’s still close with many former teammates and how he loves being in Nashville now. Maybe it’s easier for him to be looser going into the second year of a five-year deal that gave him $30 million guaranteed, or after fighting through a bad start to last season. When the Patriots went to Tennessee to play the Titans last November, Butler had given up an NFL-leading seven touchdowns, but wound up playing well in the second half of the schedule.
He should be capable of putting things in perspective. One reason for Patriots diehards to come to terms with the awkward finish to undrafted Butler’s time in New England is that he embodied something that’s considered part and parcel with the team’s ethos. He was a character in a football fairytale before everyone found out that the ending was going to be wholly unsatisfying.
At the least, Butler’s now able to think back and appreciate the earlier parts of that story. On Thursday, he reminisced about a time during his first NFL training camp, in 2014, when Darrelle Revis pulled him aside and told him that he was talented, but that he needed to learn the game better to succeed.
Asked about the Patriots receivers he’s gone up against over the past two days of joint practices, Butler said he’d been impressed with Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers.
“Nos. 9 and 16 — those guys are tough,” he said. “I don’t know their names but I know their organization. They only want hard-working guys, guys that give full effort.”
He was told that Olszewski — No. 9 — is an undrafted former Division 2 cornerback who’s converting to receiver and his face twisted into something resembling the confused Nick Young meme, then relaxed into a smile. Butler said that made sense, since Olszewski showed his cornerback stripes when he shoved him after a play during practice. He said Olszewski’s story sounds a little like his.
“Proud of him,” Butler said.
None of this is to say that Butler nailing a couple punch lines ties a neat little bow on this saga, but it says something about how the 29-year-old feels about it now. It shows that he’s moved on enough to joke, but that it really did hurt — it wouldn’t be funny if it hadn’t.
Maybe, to paraphrase Mark Twain, humor is getting benched in the Super Bowl and never really learning why, plus time.