Bill Belichick's decision not to start cornerback Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles, with the former Pro Bowler failing to play a single snap on defense against Philly, is a topic that's been questioned and analyzed almost endlessly since the big game.
While Butler's benching was a shock to everyone outside the New England locker room, safety Devin McCourty told NJ.com that the players themselves were aware of the decision, even if some didn't indicate as much in the immediate aftermath of the shockingly disappointing Super Bowl loss.
"We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team," the Patriots team captain McCourty told NJ Advance Media.
McCourty went on to defend his teammate and shoot down the speculation and rumors that the benching was discipline related to some infraction by Butler.
"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up," McCourty said.
"It sucked for him. He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."
All signs seem to point to Butler, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this March, moving on to another team after four very eventful years in Foxborough. McCourty understands why that might be the case, but also praised Butler as a "great teammate."
"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler going from undrafted rookie Super Bowl hero to top-line performer. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.
"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."