The New England Patriots really could have used cornerback Malcolm Butler in their 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
Starting cornerback Malcolm Butler played 97.8 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps during the 2017 regular season. Yet head coach Bill Belichick made the decision to bench him for Eric Rowe in Super Bowl LII — and it very well may have cost the Patriots a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Benching Butler was a “coach’s decision,” a vague term that can encompass any number of situations.
Without more information from Belichick on what went into the decision to hold his starting corner out of the Super Bowl, we’re left only to speculate.
“We put the best players out there and the game plan out there because we thought it’d be the best to win,” Belichick said after the game:
Was it disciplinary? “No.”
Was it strictly a football decision? “Yes.”
It’s hard to understand why Belichick believed Rowe, a backup cornerback, would give the team a better chance to win against the Eagles than Butler.
Butler, who had 55 total tackles, a sack, 12 passes defensed and two picks in 2017, graded out as the league’s No. 51 cornerback in 2017, per Pro Football Focus.
Now, while that may not sound great, consider this: Rowe was No. 108.
Sure, different teams call for different game plans. It’s not absurd to think that Belichick (or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia) saw something when watching Eagles film that led him to believe Rowe would be a good matchup against Alshon Jeffery.
But that’s a sub-package situation. You don’t keep Butler, your starting cornerback throughout the entire regular season, on the bench for the duration of the Super Bowl.
The wildest thing of all?
Rowe used to play for the Eagles. They didn’t have the week to watch film on him, since his being named the starter was a surprise to everyone — including Rowe — but they didn’t need to. They already knew how to exploit him.
“We could get Alshon [Jeffery] out there against him. We had Rowe on our team here in Philly, we knew that was a mismatch,” an Eagles assistant coach told Peter King of The MMQB after the game.
When all was said and done, Rowe allowed six catches for 79 yards — and completely whiffed in coverage on this Jeffery touchdown:
The Patriots defense also gave up the most yards (538) ever under Belichick.
Even Rowe thought Butler could have helped the team out.
“Yeah, we could have used anybody,” Rowe said after the game.
Butler was, no surprise, devastated in the aftermath of the Patriots’ loss.
“They gave up on me,” he said. The corner had experienced flu-like symptoms in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, but he arrived in Minnesota on Tuesday — one day after the rest of the team — and took practice reps all week.
One could argue that the Patriots gave up on Butler before the season even began. As a restricted free agent, he was all but forced to sign the Patriots’ embarrassing one-year, $3.9 million offer sheet for the 2017 season, two years removed from his interception that won the Patriots Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks.
Belichick has found immense success following the rigid rules he has set for his team, even if they have raised eyebrows on the past. He infamously benched Jonas Gray for oversleeping and missing practice back in 2014 — one week removed from a 201-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Indianapolis Colts. Gray eventually ceded backfield snaps to LeGarrette Blount.
His record of success has insulated Belichick from criticism about his strict methods, for the most part. But with Patricia departing for the Detroit Lions, the Patriots’ haunting defensive collapse in Super Bowl LII will be Belichick’s cross to bear for the forseeable future.