When the Patriots’ defense took the field without cornerback Malcolm Butler on Sunday, everybody was surprised—even Eric Rowe, who replaced Butler in the lineup. Asked after the game if he knew he was going to replace Butler, Rowe responded, “No, that wasn’t the plan.”
Eric Rowe said he didn't know he was starting until right before game. Seemed as puzzled as rest of NE as to why no Malcolm Butler— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) February 5, 2018
In a shocking twist, Butler, a legendary Patriots figure for his stunning interception in Super Bowl XLIX, now also represents one of the most puzzling decisions of the Bill Belichick era. Butler played 97.8 percent of New England’s defensive snaps during the regular season—the highest percentage of any player on the team—but saw the field only on special teams in Super Bowl LII.
“They gave up on me,” Butler told ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “Fuck. It is what it is.” He later added that “it was a coach’s decision.” “I was just doing my job and supporting my teammates,” he said. “I have nothing but great things to say about the organization. They gave me an opportunity. That’s about it.”
Butler had flu-like symptoms entering the week, which required two separate hospital visits in New England for treatment. He arrived in Minnesota on Tuesday, a day after the rest of the team, but he returned to practice on Wednesday and there was no indication that Butler wouldn’t play. Rowe told Boston Sports Journal’s Greg A. Bedard after the game that Butler had been getting reps all week.
Belichick denied after the game that it was a disciplinary decision and said it was strictly football related, while defensive coordinator Matt Patricia repeated Belichickian nonanswer after nonanswer.
Making the decision even stranger is that this isn’t just any starting cornerback—this is Malcolm Butler, who made perhaps the best play in the history of football. Belichick didn’t just bench a starter—he benched one of the bona fide legends of the Patriots’ dynasty.
Rowe, who played 16 games for the Eagles in 2015, was targeted twice on the Eagles’ first six plays, surrendering 32 yards. Later in the first quarter, he gave up a deep touchdown to Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Whatever reason Belichick had for benching Butler, the decision didn’t appear to pay off on the field: The Patriots’ defense was torched in the Super Bowl, giving up 538 total yards, 7.6 yards per play, and 41 points.
The mystery over Butler’s benching—and the question of whether or not he would have made a difference in the game—may be an unexpected final chapter to his time in New England. Butler is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Asked on whether he’d return to the Patriots next year, he responded, “I ain’t Miss Cleo, so I can’t tell the future.”
Belichick has played with fire with his defensive starters before. Most recently, he flipped Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns at the 2016 trade deadline for a third-round pick. It was a surprising move for the Patriots’ already-thin defense, but the Pats went on to win Super Bowl LI. Though we don’t know why Belichick chose to bench Butler on Sunday (and we may never know), it appears that Belichick once again played with fire—and this time he got burnt.