Did Benching Malcolm Butler lead to the Patriots losing Super Bowl LII?

By Ha Kung Wong  

Twitter: @FBGarbageTime

So, the Patriots finally lost a Super Bowl to someone other than the New York Giants.  But apparently, the NFC East is still their kryptonite, as the Philadelphia Eagles pulled off a thrilling 4th Quarter win under a masterful Doug Pederson game plan.

But the question on everyone’s mind, other than Eagles fans, was “why did the Patriots lose this game?”  And although we can dissect the Patriots game plan, it sure didn’t look like it was the Patriots offense that let them down, particularly with Tom Brady putting up an eye popping 505 passing yards and 3 TDs.  So that leaves only one option to blame, and that would be the defense.

The Patriots defense as a whole hasn’t been great this season, but they employ the classic “bend don’t break” philosophy.  Although being rated the second worst defense in the regular season per DVOA, they’ve allowed the 5th least amount of points per game to opposing offenses (18.5).  And they’ve done that by being an excellent red zone defense.  Part of that defense was Super Bowl XLIX hero, Malcolm Butler.  Sure, he’s had a down year after excelling in both 2015 and 2016, being named to the Pro Bowl in the 2015 season and named to the NFL Top 100 Players of 2017 based on his performance in 2016, but was that enough for Patriots coach Bill Belichick to bench him from playing a single snap on defense during Super Bowl LII?  And when did he actually tell Butler this was going to happen?

Clearly, his teammates didn’t know about it until the game started, as fellow CB Stephon Gilmore said he found out the “[s]ame time y’all found out.”

And if you watched the Super Bowl on NBC, you surely felt a little uncomfortable when Chris Collinsworth pointed out that Butler was crying on the sidelines during the National Anthem, and then NBC gave a mega close up of it.  So it appears that Butler didn’t find out he wasn’t playing defense until right before the game started either.

As an initial matter, if that’s what happened, that’s nuts.  Why in the world, if you had made that decision prior to the game, wouldn’t you inform that player way before the start of the game?  Not only does this impact that player negatively, but it likely impacts his teammates who’ve played all 16 regular season games and 2 post season games with him.

And when asked about the benching, Belichick said:

“We put the best — the players out there and the game plan out there that we thought would be the best tonight like we always do.”

He went on further to say that the benching was strictly for football reasons, not disciplinary.

So who did Belichick think was better than Butler?  Well, I suppose Eric Rowe is who theoretically replaced him, but that’s not completely accurate.  Because Rowe would have played regardless of whether Butler played.  The CB that Belichick subbed in was special teamer Johnson Bademosi.  Bademosi is a first year Pats player that put together just 29 combined tackles and a single pass defensed all season.  That’s compared to Butlers 60 combined tackles, 12 pass defensed and 2 INTs, which was almost identical to what he did in his Pro Bowl season.  And how did this turn out?  Let’s just say “not good”, as Bademosi allowed Nelson Agholor to catch 9 of 11 targets for 84 yards out of the slot.

Honestly, the more you look at this, the harder it is to comprehend.  As I mentioned previously, Butler’s “down year” was withing 10% of his Pro Bowl year when looking at defensive stats.  And he was still graded as one of Pro Football Focus’ Top 50 unrestricted free agents for this upcoming off season.

So, would it have made a difference if he played defense?  At least Butler thinks so, as he mentioned to ESPN’s Mike Reiss on his way to the bus after the game:

“They gave up on me. F—. It is what it is. I don’t know what it was. I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”

And former Patriots CB Brandon Browner also thought it would have made a difference as he really went after Belichick in a series of Instagram posts.

At the end of the day, it’s unclear whether playing Butler could have changed the outcome of the game.  But seeing as how the Patriots actually made it to Super Bowl LII playing Butler 97.8% of defensive snaps throughout the season, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to suddenly bench him.  I understand if you don’t want to start him for some reason, or perhaps set up certain situational snaps for him, but benching him altogether is mind boggling.  Even my podcast co-host, and big time Pats fan, Ryan Whitfield, tweeted that he thought it was Belichick’s “inflated ego” that was behind the benching.

One thing is for sure, regardless of the stats, and that’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Everyone knows that.  But Belichick, who rarely ever makes a mistake, might have actually chose to break it this time, causing his team the best chance at a historical 6th Super Bowl win.

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