We are just over six months removed from the scene of Malcolm Butler, standing on the very playing surface where he made the greatest play in NFL history (Change my mind; his interception rebooted one Dynasty and ended another in an instant) announcing that he was retiring after just seven seasons in order to deal with some unspecified personal issues:
And as surprising as that move was, it was really just the latest in a career that's been full of them. From UDFA rookie from West Alabama to Super Bowl hero to a legitimate top-tier corner to inexplicably benched in another Super Bowl to massive free agent contract to a roller coaster career in Tennessee to a retirement that comes completely out of left field. Nothing with this guy is ever ordinary.
Including this latest news.
Source - Four years after he was a surprise benching in the Patriots’ loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, cornerback Malcolm Butler is back in Foxborough on Monday for a tryout with the Patriots, a league source confirmed to the Globe.
To quote the great Clark Griswold, "Surprised? If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet I wouldn't be any more surprised than I am right now."
There's so many layers to this particular Mexican dip, you could dig your first chip in anywhere. But let's start with the obvious one. We obviously don't know if Butler will pass his physical, impress the personnel department enough to sign him or take a better offer elsewhere. But just the fact that he's in the facility at One Patriots Place at all should be enough to shoot down the most salacious of the rumors about why he was benched in Super Bowl LII. Rumors that I've been shooting down since they started back in February of 2018.
I said the very next day and I've continued to say for four years that I heard from a source I trust who spoke to Butler personally at the postgame party who told me Butler said, "Coach and I just didn't see eye-to-eye." And a Patriots assistant who said Butler had missed practices with illness, had to stay back in New England for part of that week, and hadn't had a good game in the AFC title game against Jacksonville. To put it in Belichick terms, he "Did what he thought was in the best interest of the team." We can all argue with that assessment, given what we saw from Eric Rowe, Jordan Richards and Johnson BADemosi (a combined 10 receptions allowed on 13 targets and a passer rating against in the 120s) while Butler stood on the sideline in shocked disbelief. But the Page Six-level innuendos of what he was alleged to have done to hack off Belichick can't possibly be true, or else he wouldn't be in Foxboro today. Period.
Next, it's only natural that anti-Patriots jihadists will point to Belichick working out a 32-year-old who just sat out a season and say it's a sign of desperation since he lost JC Jackson and couldn't sign anyone but Terrance Mitchell for the secondary. And, as usual, they'd be wrong. Look, I've said a hundred times here that they made the right decision to not re-sign Butler in 2018. He got a top-of-the-market deal for a free agent cornerback, by his second season in Tennessee wasn't one of the Titans top two corners, and Belichick more than replaced him with JC Jackson. All of that is true.
What's just is true is that Butler had a great comeback season in 2020. Taking his seasons since he'd become a starter in 2015, Butler set career bests in:
- Interceptions, 5
- Yards per reception, 12.0
- Touchdowns allowed, 4 (tie)
- Tackles, 94
- Defensive stops (defined as "failures" for the offense, 31
- Penalties committed, 2
And had his career second best in:
- Passer rating against, 78.6 (just 0.4 off his best)
Plus his 11 passes broken up= equaled his total of the previous two seasons combined.
Lastly, this might help explain why the Pats were so willing to let JC Jackson go the way they did. I said when Mr. INT hit free agency that the team was willing to gamble on their ability to replace him more than they were willing to gamble that he'd live up to the contract it would take to keep him:
[H]is career exactly parallels that of Malcolm Butler, and they had no problem letting him walk. … Now he's retired. Meanwhile the Patriots replaced him with Jackson, who's younger, has been better, and much, much cheaper. So there's reason to think they're confident they can find the next Butler or the next Jackson.
And this workout today is a very clear indication they might believe the next Butler or Jackson they've found is the original Butler/Jackson.
It would be wild if they did. One, because it would give the good, decent, God-fearin', salt-of-the-Earth people at Gillette the chance to show their appreciation of Malcolm Go! once again. Two, it could shore up a secondary that could really use a man cover corner. But more than anything, it would give us the incredible theater of watching Belichick set his Question Deflector Shields to maximum every time someone tries to bring up the benching from four years ago all over again. Please, please make this happen.