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Ask PFW: Where was Malcolm Butler?

As a lifelong Patriots fan I need an explanation. Why didn’t Malcolm Butler play a single defensive snap in the Super Bowl? I’m not sure it would have made the difference between winning and losing, but he is a playmaking veteran with invaluable Super Bowl experience. He at least would have been an upgrade in nickel packages over Johnson Bademosi, with the potential to make impact plays late in the game. Did Bill Belichick really feel like Butler was that much of a liability? Was there some secret disciplinary reason behind the whole thing? Us fans deserve a legitimate and honest explanation.
Connor Megan

I totally agree with you, Connor, but unfortunately I don’t have a definitive answer for you or for any of the other hundred or so (literally) who wrote in wondering the same thing. I’ve see many different theories and reports regarding Butler’s absence, some suggesting he was disciplined, others saying it was strictly related to his plays and some stating things combining the two. What we do know is this: Butler played virtually every snap on defense this season, and then didn’t take a single defensive snap in the Super Bowl. The team then went out and coughed up 41 points and well over 500 yards of offense. I don’t believe Butler’s absence was solely responsible for that, but it was definitely a factor. The part I’m having a tough time with regarding potential discipline was the fact that he was active for the game. If Bill Belichick felt Butler needed to be benched due to discipline, then he should have been inactive and the Patriots wouldn’t have been forced to play a man short. That would have been what was best for the team. Other theories have suggested the discipline was handed out just before kickoff, which is tough to believe. How could something egregious enough to force Belichick to bench Butler happen less than 90 minutes before kickoff? We’ll be getting more info I’m sure, but right now we’re all together in wondering exactly what took place.
Paul Perillo

The Butler controversy is very real, but two questions: 1. On a scale of 1-10, how big of a controversy would it have been if the Pats had pulled out the game? 2. I think we have to give credit to the Eagles OL, while recognizing that our front seven got ZERO pressure. Even allowing for the possibility of “morale contagion,” do you really think that Butler’s absence fully explained the lack of pass rush? Bonus: after losing Edelman and Hightower, didn’t this team overachieve?
Ben

That’s a great question, Ben. If the Patriots had won the game I suspect Butler’s benching would have been much less of a controversy, but it still would have drawn plenty of attention and questions. Perhaps on your scale I’d have put it around 5 or 6. Butler was a full-time starter all season and then didn’t play at all. Even if New England has won I think fans and media would be talking about it; just not to the levels it will be talked about now. The defense didn’t really provide much of a pass rush all season, with some exceptions, so I don’t really think Butler’s absence had much to do with that part of the defensive breakdown. Finally, I don’t believe the team came close to overachieving. They were healthy favorites in their two home playoff games and most experts predicted the Patriots would win the Super Bowl against a Philadelphia team that had plenty of missing personnel including its quarterback. I’m not saying this season represents underachievement, but to say it overachieved is a stretch.
Paul Perillo

What, if any, impact do you think the events of this season will have on free agency? You would think that all the retirement talk, the Malcolm Butler benching and new coordinators might deter players from wanting to sign or re-sign with the Pats. Seems like a lot of drama surrounding the team.
Jody T.

This is another interesting question. It’s also one that’s extremely difficult to answer for a couple of reasons. First, the loss and disappointment is still so fresh that emotions are running wild. People – players, coaches, fans – are all wondering why Butler didn’t play and there seems to be some division among the ranks. But the Patriots don’t have any real on-field work to do for quite some time. And time generally heals these types of wounds. The second reason why it’s hard to determine is we don’t have all the information regarding the possible retirements. Free agents might be wondering, and then they talk to Bill Belichick and get the information and work from there. I do think there’s a possibility that veterans around the league who may have been interested in coming to New England might have second thoughts considering the possible upheaval. But again, I only say that because I honestly don’t know all of the relevant information. The players would have more insight and then could make their decisions based on that.
Paul Perillo

New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski celebrates his touchdown catch during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Hey guys, tough loss last night but a valiant, hard fought game for sure. If these Gronk retirement rumors are true and he does in fact retire, how big of a need will TE be for us? I know having Julian Edelman back will help but it seems like this offense revolves around Gronk outside of TB12.
Jake Scott

Let me start by saying I don’t believe that Gronk is really contemplating retirement. Instead I feel it’s more of a contract ploy in an effort to get a new deal. It’s possible that the tight end is beat up a bit after playing through another back surgery and a concussion suffered late in the season, but he’s also entering the final two years of his deal, one that it could be argued was quite team friendly. He’s due some money off incentives he earned this year, but he’s also likely to be looking for a big money deal and I viewed his comments as something that could be part of some sort of negotiation. That’s just speculation on my part, but I don’t see Gronk walking away after such a tremendous season. Obviously if he did tight end would become a huge priority in the offseason.
Paul Perillo

I would like to come back on what happened to Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski two matches in a row. For me it’s done on purpose by opposite teams. It’s not ‘bad luck’. Head to head to avoid a player to return for the game have been clearly played consciously. How come one of your best player each time can’t play again for the rest of the game and the defensive player can stay on field? Your thoughts?
Ludovic, Versailles
France

I strongly disagree with just about every aspect of this mindset. I did not think either hit that knocked those players out of the game was intentionally done with malice and the idea of knocking those players out. The one on Gronk was done in an effort to break up the pass and the one on Cooks came as the result of Cooks running in place and even backward before Malcolm Jenkins delivered the big blow. Neither looked like a dirty play to me. But assuming you are right and there was intention involved, how could defensive players use their heads to create concussions while knowing they wouldn’t suffer concussions as well? Wouldn’t it be logical that if Barry Church and Jenkins lowered their heads to hit Gronk and Cooks in the head on purpose to causes concussions that they would be suffering concussions as well? You can’t determine what type of contact will lead to a concussion. And I certainly hate the idea of having players ejected for those types of plays. That could lead to all kinds of unintended consequences like coaches holding out backup players who get hit by key defenders intentionally to keep the opponent off the field. It’s all part of football, a very violent part, but a part nonetheless.
Paul Perillo

We lost, yes, no one to blame but ourselves. Defense couldn’t stop or tackle anyone. What happened? Worst defensive game plan ever. But what I am wondering about is those two TDs Philly scored that should have been overturned. What is a catch nowadays? I don’t understand it. Can you please tell me if those were actual catches?
Chris Meyers

The two plays were quite different, and to me there’s really only one worth discussing. The Zach Ertz touchdown in my view was obvious. He caught the ball, turned upfield and clearly became a runner. He took at least two strides, almost three if you watch in slow motion, and then lunged to the end zone. At this point he is no different than a running back lunging for the end zone. He had clear possession of the ball and broke the plane of the goal line. When the landed in the end zone, the ball popped up by it’s irrelevant whether the ground caused the ball to move or not because he broke the plane as a runner and therefore it’s a touchdown. The first one in question was far less clear. Corey Clement definitely caught the ball and had two feet in bounds, but there was definitely a question over when he demonstrated clear and firm control. It’s possible that this one could have been overturned because it could be argued Clement didn’t have the ball in control with both feet inbounds. I thought it was similar to the Kelvin Benjamin overturned TD in the Buffalo game on Christmas Eve. So I could see the reasoning if the officials opted to overturn it again. But in fairness, I thought it was too close to tell for sure and the call on the field should have stood. The league really needs to look at this entire process and figure out how to respond because when we have people watching these plays and coming to different conclusions based on the vagaries of a poorly written and enforced rule.
Paul Perillo

I’d also like your thoughts about former Pats players like Ty Law, who opted for free agency, and whose final years in the NFL ended in mediocrity. Law will probably get into the HOF someday, but you’ve gotta wonder if he’s not kicking himself now for those final five years he bounced around the league in mediocrity, when he could’ve been a career Patriot and probably ended up enshrined in the HOF his first year eligible. Your thoughts?
Jim Destin

I agree with you that Ty Law will eventually get in but I disagree that he’d be in already if he stayed. First, let me state that leaving was not necessarily his choice. Yes, Law wanted money but Belichick also wanted to move one, so there’s two parts to that story. But I also disagree with your characterization of his last five years. He was not mediocre after he left the Patriots. His first year out of New England he led the league with 10 picks for the Jets. He was a starter for Kansas City in the playoffs in 2006 and recorded two picks off Peyton Manning in a playoff loss to the Colts. He started all 16 games three straight years after leaving the Patriots and had 17 interceptions plus two more in the postseason. He finished up playing part-time his final two years, but he was much better than mediocre, and in my opinion playing that well outside of New England, proving he wasn’t just part of the greatest winning system in NFL history, enhances his chances of making the Hall.
Paul Perillo

I’ve always wondered, for big games, playoffs or otherwise, how common is it for coaches from other teams who may be more familiar with a given team to reach out to friends on that team’s opponents to share insights and strategies? Would both coaching staffs be fielding calls from friends and former colleagues who’ve seen the two Super Bowl contenders up close this season telling them what to focus on and look out for?
Paul Bernard
Singapore

My guess is stuff like this happens all the time, and more often than not we don’t hear about it. As an example, heading into the Super Bowl it would not have surprised me if Belichick spoke to Chip Kelly about the Eagles. The two coaches are friends and Kelly obviously has some knowledge of the Eagles from his time there as head coach. I’m sure there are many other examples like that that we’re not aware about because the coaching fraternity is small and virtually everyone knows someone who might be able to help. And I agree with you that both coaching staffs likely talked to friends at various points.
Paul Perillo

I’ve seen everything that’s possible to print on the Jimmy G trade but I’ve never heard anyone speculate that with Jimmy becoming a free agent the Patriots could re-sign him? How would this scenario be possible?
John Stang

That has been endlessly speculated and yet somehow people still haven’t seemed to grasp the fact that the Niners traded a second-round pick for Garoppolo and then watched him perform exceptionally well. Why would San Francisco then allow him to leave via free agency? The Niners will re-sign him to a big-money deal and the Patriots will need to find Brady’s successor elsewhere.
Paul Perillo

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