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'They gave up on me': Patriots' Malcolm Butler laments surprise Super Bowl benching

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the sidelines during the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

When NBC's Super Bowl 52 telecast panned across the Patriots during the national anthem, Malcolm Butler was shown to be teary-eyed. As it turned out, the cornerback who became the unexpected hero of Super Bowl 49 had just found out that he was benched for Sunday's championship game, one New England would go on to lose to the Eagles in high-scoring fashion, 41-33.

Afterward, a disconsolate Butler told ESPN's Mike Reiss, "They gave up on me. F---. It is what it is."

"I don't know what it was," Butler added. "I guess I wasn't playing good or they didn't feel comfortable. I don't know. But I could have changed that game."

During the regular season, Butler led all Patriots defensive players with a 97.83 snap percentage (per Pro-Football Reference), and he played every snap of New England's first two postseason games. However, just before the Super Bowl kicked off, Butler was told he would be replaced by fellow cornerback Eric Rowe, a decision that surprised even the latter player.

"No, that wasn't the plan," Rowe said (via NFL.com). "It wasn't official until kickoff. . . . I feel for [Butler]."

After the game, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was asked about his decision to bench Butler, who only took the field on a few special-teams plays. "We put the best players and game plan out there that we felt was best for tonight, like we always do," Belichick said in typically terse manner.

"It was a coach's decision," said Butler, whose goal-line interception sealed the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the Seahawks in 2015. "I was just doing my job and supporting my teammates. I have nothing but great things to say about the organization. They gave me an opportunity. That's about it."

Making Belichick's decision even more of a head-scratcher was that Rowe struggled in coverage Sunday, as did the Patriots' secondary in general. Nick Foles, the Eagles quarterback who was the backup until Carson Wentz tore a knee ligament, threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors, while New England frequently had safeties covering the slot position, from which Philadelphia's Nelson Agholor racked up nine catches for 84 yards.

One former Patriots player laid the blame for the loss squarely on Belichick for overthinking.

"Lost the game for us tonight," former cornerback Brandon Browner captioned an Instagram photo of Belichick. "Stupid decision and makes no sense. You make the decision to give us the best chance to win. But u don't play your best cornerback. F--- the politics."

"A locker room was divided pre game," he added in another post and he also pointed out that the Eagles amassed "the most passing yards in Super Bowl history."

Browner also sent a message to Butler, whose future in New England is uncertain. "Your spirit was all over that game tonight. Definitely seen it, they had safeties covering WR to prove a point. God bless u my friend, keep fighting, I saw you tear up pre game, first sign. You done a lot for that team and that community it's ok to move on."

On NFL Network's postgame show, analysts and former players LaDainian Tomlinson and Deion Sanders agreed that benching Butler cost the Patriots dearly. Pointing out that New England often employed a scheme that had safeties covering slot receivers with no extra help, Sanders said, "I feel like [Butler] would have been a better fit for the defensive calls today."

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who is expected to become the Lions' head coach, told reporters that his team was simply "trying to run some packages," which apparently didn't happen to include Butler. "It kind of turned out that way, and the game with the way it went and some of the situations that came up, that was just kind of the way it went," he said.

Patriots personnel decision was to put a safety (Chung, Richards) at the nickel to help stop the run and also cover the slot (Agholor).

The bigger Rowe had reportedly been practicing during the week as a starting cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore, but Rowe said after the game that he still expected Butler to get his share of playing time. Gilmore said (via the Boston Herald) of Butler, "I want everybody to play, he's a scrappy player so he could have helped us, maybe? I don't know. That's how the game goes sometimes."

Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who helped New England win the Super Bowl last season before joining Philadelphia, expressed surprise at his former teammate's benching. "Malcolm Butler didn't play? Man. I didn't know that," Long said. "That's tough. He's a hell of a player."

"The guy has played a lot of football, so to not be out there I'm sure crushed him," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "We all want to be out there, we all want to play, so I know Malc, he's super competitive. He wants to be out there, so I'm not surprised he was emotional."

Compounding Butler's frustration was that he heads into the offseason as a restricted free agent and thus may have played his last game as a Patriot. Asked by Reiss what would come next for him, Butler replied, "I ain't Miss Cleo, so I can't tell the future."

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