There was no shortage of questions after the New England Patriots' Super Bowl loss against the Philadelphia Eagles. The biggest of which concerned starting cornerback Malcolm Butler, who did not see any defensive playing time despite being on the field for over 95% of the team's snaps leading up to the title game. There will probably never be a definitive answer, though, considering the information flow out of the organization.
But while head coach Bill Belichick and other members of the team go with the “doing what is best for the team”-mantra, Butler himself has been a bit more outspoken about being a virtual inactive for the Super Bowl. The cornerback released a statement shortly after the game and also spoke to the then-Boston Herald's Jeff Howe about the game a few days after leaving New England to join the Tennessee Titans.
This process – Butler entering free agency and signing a five-year, $61 million deal with Tennessee – was captured on film by Sports Illustrated's Under the Cover-series. The 11-minute clip that can be streamed on Amazon shows the defensive back open up about the free agent market and also the controversial end to his tenure with the team. “This how we gonna end this?,” Butler asks at one point.
He also elaborates on his oft-discussed pre-Super Bowl week: “The week before the Super Bowl, you know I just, I wasn’t too feeling too well,” the 28-year old said. “Like I had a full nose running. Nose stopped up. You know, I took a trip to the hospital. And, I didn’t travel with the team the day they traveled down there. I never missed a game. Never like, missed practice or anything like that.”
When asked whether or not he would have made a difference in the high-scoring Super Bowl, Butler says that he might have. “Would we have won if I played? Probably. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I would say we were short about one or two plays, and I seen a couple plays out there I could have made.” With Butler on the sidelines, New England turned to depth defensive backs Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi. Both failed to make the “one or two plays” Butler was referring to.
Would Butler have really made a difference? That, of course, is impossible to say (even though Philadelphia's players believe their team would still have won). On the one hand, it is not hard to see Butler make a third down tackle on the Eagles' game winning drive that Bademosi missed, or be in position to stop a runner at the second level – unlike Richards. On the other hand, though, Philadelphia might have been still been able to effectively target him after what can be considered a down year for Butler.
In the end, to quote Belichick, it is what it is. The decision to bench Butler was a bold one and finds itself a lot closer to “4th and 2” than “let's keep Tom Brady as our starting quarterback”. Trying the unconventional and rolling the dice, however, have always been a big reason why New England's head coach led the team to eight Super Bowls – even if not all of them resulted in victories.