The Patriots’ Surprise Star
Malcolm Butler was a bottom-of-the-roster player heading into New England’s last Super Bowl. Now he’s getting top billing, and maybe the toughest assignment, against the Falcons in Houston. Plus reader mail
The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas answers reader mail while on the road to Houston and Super Bowl LI.
HOUSTON — So it has come to this for New England cornerback Malcolm Butler, who two years ago this week was as invisible as any bottom-of-the-roster player at Super Bowl 49: Microsoft approached Butler when the Patriots clinched their Super Bowl berth and asked if he’d be the Pats’ player to wear cleats designed by a fan on the field before Super Bowl 51. What? Butler tried to process it. Fans at the NFL Experience could draw a design for the cleats on a Microsoft Surface, competing for the right to have Butler wear them on the field during warm-ups; late in the week, Butler would choose a winning design.
Malcolm Butler, in one of the NFL’s mega-partners’ major pre-game promotions? What a long strange trip it’s been for a guy who wasn’t drafted in 2014, who wasn’t one of the Patriots’ draft-weekend undrafted free agents, who earned a shot with the Patriots after a mid-May tryout that year when the team had a couple of camp slots left.
“Life has changed,” said Butler, who has written one of the most compelling stories in recent NFL history. “It’s changed a lot, a whole lot.”
This week, Butler is part of the biggest matchup question of the Super Bowl: How will the Patriots defend Julio Jones? At 5-11 and 180 pounds, Butler has not often been matched against the redwoods of NFL receivers, and Jones is four-and-a-half-inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Butler. The Patriots could use the 6-1, 207-pound Eric Rowe, or ever the 5-11, 192-pound Logan Ryan, plus a feisty safety like Patrick Chung, to try to limit the potential Atlanta game-wrecker.
Rowe is actually not a bad guess. In his past 10 games, he’s averaged 53 snaps a game, including 61 in the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh. Ryan leads the Patriots in snaps against the slot receiver; that means he could be matched against one of the league’s best in the slot in 2016, Atlanta’s Mohamed Sanu. Somehow, some way, the Patriots will figure a way to matchup against Jones … and you know that Bill Belichick won’t get lost in this single matchup. He knows that when Jones is a non-factor (Jones missed two games with injuries in 2016, and was held to 35 receiving yards or less in four others), Atlanta’s still very diverse on offense, and very good: 6-0 in fact, averaging 37.0 points per game.
“He can do everything, and he likes to block too,” Butler said. “Best wide receiver in the NFL, and you never hear him complain about anything whether he gets the ball or not.”
The guess here, and that’s all it is, would by Ryan and a safety on Jones, Chung on the back leaking out of the backfield, and Butler handling some of the Sanu duty. But we shall see.
Now, back to the Butler story. Two years ago, when he jumped the Ricardo Lockette route and picked off the Russell Wilson pass at the New England goal line, with Seattle needing one yard in three downs to score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, Butler’s life changed. Forever. I’ll never forget seeing Butler in the locker room afterward, looking legitimately dazed by the turn of events. During the week, no one had interviewed him. No one in the media was even sure he’d be active for the game, never mind playing at crunch time after cornerback Kyle Arrington had been benched for getting beat too much. On his 18th snap of the Super Bowl, Butler made history.
“I went from NFL player to one of the well-known NFL players, in one play,” Butler said. “I was surrounded after the game … [Owner] Mr. [Robert] Kraft gave me a kiss on the cheek. He said to me, ‘My guy! So glad you’re a part of this team.’ When you make big plays, the boss is going to like you. If I didn’t make that play, you know what would have happened—I probably would have been on the coach’s tape for not being able to handle big situations in big-time games.”
I wondered: “What did Bill Belichick ever say to you about the play?”
“He used it on teaching tapes with the squad,’’ Butler said. “Then, shortly after the Super Bowl, he said to me, ‘Long way from West Alabama, huh?’ And he smiled. That was about it.
“It does feel unreal to me, especially where I came from. Division II to the New England Patriots, last cornerback on the roster all season, go out in the biggest game of the year, on the biggest play of the game, make one of the biggest plays in NFL history. Then, come back the next year, accomplish a few things, and then, this year, back in the Super Bowl. It is amazing sometimes when I think about it. Sometimes it does feel unreal.”
“The dream world is over. We got a game to play.” Spoken like a Belichick player.
Now for your email.
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49ERS DÉJÀ VU
Regarding John Lynch’s hiring in San Francisco, we’ve seen this story before. The Niners’ fall from the upper echelon was a direct result of the same thing. When the Yorks seized control of the franchise, they turned it over to Terry Donahue, fresh out of the broadcast booth. He actually had coaching experience, albeit college, but he had experience in talent evaluation. Maybe Lynch turns out great. But the 49ers’ long, slow climb out of the mess Donahue presided over was a result of Scot McCloughan’s work. He worked his way up the scouting ranks. Trent Baalke had scouting experience as well, and he was more or less a disaster. Why should we expect greatness? Did they look back home at the Bay Area and think, ‘It worked for Steve Kerr, what the heck?’”
I believe this is about CEO Jed York looking at a partner for Kyle Shanahan that Shanahan will respect, knows and will be comfortable. None of it will matter, obviously, unless Lynch surrounds himself with strong scouts—good first strike with Tuesday’s hiring of 14-year scouting veteran Adam Peters—and finds a quarterback of the future very early in the process.
You wrote “The object of the [injury] report is to ferret out information about players who likely will miss a game or games—which [Richard] Sherman never did.” Except it is also to prohibit “insider trading,” isn’t it? While the players do make a boatload more money than they used to, wasn’t this rule implemented to prevent gamblers and bookies from unscrupulously learning things the rest of us don’t know in an effort to make money? Example, if the QB has a broken non-throwing thumb and will play, he may take every snap from shotgun, which surely impacts usage of the running backs, play calling, etc. When millions of dollars are “earned” per week in fantasy football and betting, isn’t it vital to protect the transparency of information?
Yes, of course. And you’re right—the injury reports, ideally, prevent someone on the outside from learning something on the inside that no one on the inside wants out till game time. But teams obfuscate on injury reporting every day, every week. Richard Sherman just finished a season in which he was the top-rated cover cornerback in football in the category of fewest receptions allowed per snap. That’s not a guy, seemingly, who was affected very much by an injury.
CONCUSSION PROTOCOL MEANS MORE HITS?
The concussion protocol has been criticized (rightfully so) by allowing players such as Matt Moore and Cam Newton to re-enter games after taking huge hits to the head. If the NFL goes forward and deems that these players are immediately removed from the rest of the game, couldn’t this cause MORE shots to head? Why wouldn’t an opposing defense in a close or high-leverage game say near the end “why don’t we take the 15-yard penalty to ensure that their starting QB does not return for the rest of the game?” Love the column, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!
True, Drew … but there’s no way that defensive coaches are going to advise or even imply support for such head-hunting, because it would mean a spate of 15-yard calls against the defense. So I don’t think this would cause defenders to go looking to hit high on the body.
REMEMBER THE ALAMO’S TEAM
Hi Peter. I’ve been enjoying your column every Monday morning for years. Normally I don’t disagree with you, but you dropped the ball on this one. You talked about the New England Patriots and how their greatness is “unlike any in team sports over this past quarter-century”. There’s a basketball team in Texas that would respectfully disagree with you. Here are the San Antonio Spurs’ stats over the past quarter century:
• Six trips to the NBA Finals
• Five NBA championships
• 10 trips to the Western Conference Finals
• Qualified for playoffs in 24 out of 25 seasons
The Patriots are not the only great franchise in team sports. And this is coming from a Chicago Bulls fan!
I stand corrected. Excellent point.
GREEN AND GOLD
A small correction to your latest MMQB column: Besides Mr. Kraft, there are actually 360,790 owners in the NFL. The majority, of course, are Green Bay Packer stockholders.
—George H., Hanover, Pa.
Wouldn’t it be great if one day they all came to the Packer shareholders meeting at Lambeau Field?
GIVE FED HIS DUE
I would like to contest one of your thoughts: I think that Roger Federer’s win at age 35 is in fact MORE impressive than Tom Brady (potentially) winning a Super Bowl at age 39. I’m not a big fan of tennis, but I can recognize greatness when I see it. Federer plays a physically demanding individual sport without the help of a large surrounding cast orchestrated by the greatest coach of his generation. He has done so with phenomenal consistency at a very high level for a very long time. He just conquered his nemesis to win a Grand Slam event, his 18th, a record. Brady`s success is also amazing, but he plays one of the least physically demanding positions in the ultimate team game. Just last year, a guy won the Super Bowl at 39. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Sure, Peyton Manning wasn’t as good last year as Brady is this year, but he still won the game. Which I think supports my point.
Here’s why I would disagree, and I should have worded it slightly differently. The way Brady is winning this year, at 39, is historic. Manning had 11 TDs and 17 interceptions at age 39, and he won a Super Bowl despite not being very good. Brady had 33 touchdowns and four interceptions at 39 … and if it were so easy, Joe Montana, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino—none of whom played at 39—would have stayed in the game to compete at 39.
STICK TO SPORTS …
Peter, I’ve enjoyed reading your column for many years for various reasons. I like your insight into various NFL themes on and off the field. I’ve also grown to like your stories and links to stories that don’t involve sports. I admire the way you handled the marriage of your daughter and other once-taboo subjects. But if you are going to use your column to brow beat the current administration every week, I may have to find another football fix. I have many friends on both sides of the aisle, and we just agree not to talk about politics when we’re together. Calling Steve Bannon “scurrilous” is a below-the-belt punch. And it’s out of place in your column even if it were a tasteful criticism. I’m not defending Donald Trump or his lieutenants, but we’ve got a long way to go, and this will get tiresome. I have sources I depend on for a balanced view of national political affairs. Your column is escapism from that. Please stay in your lane.
… OR DON’T STICK TO SPORTS
Thank you for your comments on Steve Bannon in your last column. This is the time when good people who have the ability to reach many people use their platform to do so. This is not the country any sane person wants.
I’ve always voiced personal opinions about life, our country and our pastimes in MMQB, and I’ll continue to do so. It’s easy to skip over them if you disagree with me.
MORE TRAVEL TALES
As a frequent traveler myself, I always look forward to the Mr. Starwood section at the end of the MMQB. After the Super Bowl during your downtime, I’d look forward to reading a lengthy travel section with some inside tips!
—Nick H., Atlanta
Thanks, Nick. Here’s one: Don’t be in a hurry when you’re at the Super Bowl venue. It’s traffic and logistical quicksand.
HE CALLED YOU WHAT?
Mr. Kraft calls you “sweetheart?” This will surely rile up the readers who feel you are a Patriot lover, so to speak.
Cliff P., Midlothian, Va.
He sure did call me that, darling.
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