Bill Belichick is rightly considered one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Winning five Super Bowls in the free-agency era is a feat that may never be equaled, and the New England Patriots' consistency of success during his tenure—and the matching tenure of Tom Brady—speaks for itself.
If the Pats had managed to pick up their sixth Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night in Super Bowl LII, the only question about Belichick's historic greatness may have been whether he should be enshrined in Canton while he's still coaching.
But instead Belichick made a critical—and potential game-losing—decision to bench cornerback Malcolm Butler, and the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl, beating New England 41-33 in a brilliant exhibition of offensive play-calling by head coach Doug Pederson and his staff.
The Eagles out-schemed Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, poleaxing a defense that had improved exponentially over the season. And a big reason for that improvement was Butler, the fourth-year man from West Alabama best known for his hero's journey in Super Bowl XLIX, when he crashed a goal-line slant and picked off a Russell Wilson pass to ensure New England's win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Butler has become a valuable, if not always top-flight, pass defender. The 5'11", 190-pounder tends to give up completions to smaller, shiftier receivers—one reason he doesn't spend a lot of time in the slot—but he's been one of the more enterprising pass defenders in the NFL over the last few seasons.
He was on the field for 97.8 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps in the 2017 regular season and every defensive snap during the team's playoff wins over the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
For Butler to get no snaps on defense and just one on special teams in the Super Bowl was one of the weirder decisions Belichick has made in his career.
And typical of the coach, Belichick wasn't about to reveal why Butler was active but essentially benched.
"I respect Malcolm's competitiveness, and I am sure that he felt like he could have helped," Belichick said on a Monday conference call, per Ryan Hannable of WEEI.com. "I am sure other players felt the same way, but in the end, we have to make the decisions that we feel are best for the football team, and that is what we did, that is what I did. That's really all I can say about it."
In Butler's place, Belichick started cornerback Eric Rowe, who allowed six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown on a team-high nine targets, per Phil Perry and Mike Giardi of NBC Sports Boston.
The most egregious error was that touchdown: With 2:34 left in the first quarter, receiver Alshon Jeffery beat Rowe on a vertical route and outjumped him for a 34-yard score. Rowe did break up a fade from Foles to Jeffery earlier in the first quarter that would have been a touchdown, but his overall performance left everyone wondering why Butler wasn't added to the field at some point.
Moreover, Butler's demotion turned the Patriots into a three-safety team in a lot of their sub-packages, with Patrick Chung and Jordan Richards looking vulnerable in coverage.
This domino effect is exactly what one would expect Belichick to anticipate; that he caused it by benching Butler makes this a possible game-losing call. It's the kind of regrettable decision that Belichick's opponents usually make, and Pederson made him pay.
Maybe not. But it was Belichick's biggest mistake of Super Bowl LII.
"They gave up on me," Butler told ESPN's Mike Reiss after the game. "F--k. It is what it is. It was a coach's decision. ... I don't know what it was. I guess I wasn't playing good. They didn't feel comfortable. I could have changed that game, though.
"I was just doing my job supporting my teammates. I had nothing but great things to say about the organization. Great organization. They gave me the opportunity."
Rowe told reporters the decision to start him over Butler wasn't made until game time. In that same NFL.com article, reporter Ian Rapoport, who once worked in Boston media and covered the Patriots, intimated that the fact Butler arrived for Super Bowl week a day late because of an illness may have been a factor. Rapoport also discussed a rough week of practice for Butler as well as a minor, unspecified violation of team rules.
According to Kevin Duffy of MassLive.com, Butler had been demoted from the starters in practice dating back to the Patriots' bye week leading up to the Super Bowl. That implies Belichick had a desire to see other options at outside cornerback, and it would appear something he saw contributed to his decision to play Rowe and even Johnson Bademosi—who allowed one catch for 17 yards in the game—instead of Butler.
If this was a purely football decision—or if football-related factors pushed Belichick over the edge—what might those factors have been?
When you watch Butler's tape, you see a quick corner who's great on vertical routes and slants but not effective against quick receivers with good feet. Butler tends to get tied up against foot fakes and double moves, and the Eagles have a roster full of receivers who can take cornerbacks like that and make their days fairly miserable—particularly Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith.
In addition, Jeffery took a lot of underneath stuff against the Vikings' zone packages in their 38-7 NFC Championship Game win, and if a cornerback doesn't know how to be effectively aggressive to break on the ball before the catch point in those situations, there's little else he can do except allow the short pass and hope to limit yards after the catch.
For the record, Butler ranked 42nd overall in our NFL1000 season-end review of the league's outside cornerbacks and had a score of 66; Rowe didn't have enough snaps to qualify on the outside, though he did rank 21st in our slot defender rankings and had a score of 64.
As NFL1000 cornerbacks scout Ian Wharton wrote, "Butler is a tough-nosed, physical corner who has to win early at the line of scrimmage, or else, with his average speed (4.62 40-yard dash) and route-recognition skills, he struggles to catch up."
"Rowe is more of a physical player who can defend vertical routes with his speed, but struggles with crossers and sharp-breaking routes," Wharton wrote of Butler's replacement. "That's a bigger concern in the slot than it is outside, and Rowe's season was inconsistent as a result."
So, Belichick was presented with two options he didn't like—and he chose the cornerback with less outside experience to play outside. Again, a confusing decision on its face.
Butler gave up two touchdowns in New England's divisional-round win over the Titans, and both are good looks if you want to get more insight into Belichick's decision.
This was the first of two touchdowns Marcus Mariota threw to rookie receiver Corey Davis, and these were the only touchdowns the Titans scored in their 35-14 loss.
Here, Davis takes Butler outside on pre-snap motion, and in the second picture, you can see Butler taking a split second to adjust:
That split second is all Davis needs as he runs his double move to the end zone:
Butler recovers nicely, but that extra step—which Butler never made up for from the pre-snap motion—is all Mariota needs to hit his target with a perfect throw.
It's worth mentioning that, in the NFC Championship Game, Alshon Jeffery beat veteran cornerback Terence Newman on a somewhat similar double move. Perhaps Belichick was mindful of these two plays.
On the second touchdown, Butler is playing off-coverage in a Cover 1 look. The Patriots are overload-blitzing to the defensive right side and playing their defenders off across the formation because they don't need to cover underneath with the Titans facing a 4th-and-9 from the 11-yard line:
The pressure doesn't get there quickly enough, which gives Davis the time to run his out route, using his body to dig to the sideline:
When Davis cuts to the outside, Butler struggles to keep up. He is not in a position to jump or cut the route...
...which leads to an easy Davis touchdown:
We may never know exactly why Belichick decided to bench his most well-traveled cornerback in the biggest game of the year, though even the best coach in the league—and perhaps the best coach of all time—can be criticized for what looks like a crucial personnel mistake.
Butler will be a free agent at the start of the 2018 league year, which makes Super Bowl LII an important topic of discussion for any team looking to sign him. Based on the enmity brought about by this decision, it's a pretty safe bet one of those teams won't be the Patriots.