This is the natural arc to the story, isn’t it?
If you’re going to live the made-for-TV life Malcolm Butler’s been living, this “Love of the Game vs. Big Business Reality of the NFL” conflict had to happen.
And there’s no denying that Butler’s in it now.
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The kid who grew up with very little in Vicksburg, Mississippi, worked at Popeye’s Chicken through high school, couldn’t get into a Division I school because of his grades, got in trouble at community college, got tossed, went back to mopping floors and frying chicken, went back to the community college then landed at another college, caught the eye of the greatest NFL dynasty of this century, made the team after a tryout, saved a Super Bowl when the team was being assailed by the league, allowed the team to let a defensive back legend walk and followed up with two more excellent seasons is now in the midst of a confusing and increasingly contentious contract situation.
Let’s recalibrate everything as it stands today.
Realistically, Butler’s scuffling football past is coming back to bite him. He graduated high school in 2009 and had he followed a normal Division I-to-NFL path, he’d be puffing on a big cigar.
But, at 27, he only has three seasons under his belt and is a restricted free agent.
Corners of similar ability - Pro Bowler in 2015, second-team All-Pro in 2016 - who aren’t restricted are getting long-term deals worth more than $60 million with more than $35 million guaranteed. The Patriots signed 26-year-old Stephon Gilmore – the 10th overall pick in 2012 and a Pro Bowler in 2016 – to a five-year, $65M deal, with $40M guaranteed, on Thursday.
Butler and his agent, Derek Simpson, have until April 21 to shop Butler all over the league. If they find a team willing to both pay Butler the going rate for a player of his skill, Butler gets an offer sheet. The Patriots then have a week to match the offer. If the Patriots choose not to match, they’ll get a first-round draft pick in return. And that’s where this kind of free agency is restrictive. Teams aren’t going to sign a big-money corner AND give up a first-round pick.
If Butler can’t find a suitor, he has until June 15 to sign his “tender” from the Patriots, which is basically a one-year contract that will pay him $3.9M. If he chooses not to sign, he’ll just be in limbo – a restricted free agent until he gets another season under his belt and gets to unrestricted free agency.
The other way to appease Butler would be to trade him. But the Patriots can’t trade a player who’s not under contract. So, Butler and Simpson would have to find a suitor, get a concrete offer on an extension, go back to the Patriots, sign the tender offer so his rights officially belong to New England and then have the trade executed. That way, the team doesn’t have to give up a pick and can instead move a player on its own roster that it may be at an impasse with.
Oh, do you have frequently asked questions? I do as well. Let’s plumb them together.
Q. Why didn’t the Patriots just give Butler a fat extension – Gilmore’s money, for instance?
A. They didn’t have to. Regardless of how hard everyone roots for Butler, it wouldn’t make business sense for the Patriots to pay Butler top-market money before they have to. Currently, they have two Pro Bowl corners – Gilmore and Butler – and are paying them a combined total of roughly $16M (Butler’s $4M tender, one-fifth of Gilmore’s five-year, $65M deal).
Q. But don’t the Patriots have any soul? After all he’s done for such miniscule money, couldn’t they extend him for great-but-not-top-tier money?
A. Yes. And they’ve tried to get Butler extended. But, while Simpson (Butler’s agent) is saying he’s not “asking for the moon” it seems the Patriots are having a hard time divining just what they are asking for. The Patriots made an offer in the offseason. There were conflicting reports as to how close Butler came to accepting that offer. The offer reportedly hasn’t grown since then. In the business world, I think they call that a “f****** stalemate.” The Patriots are getting pissed that they are being made to look like ogres.
There’s question as to whether Simpson, a neophyte agent - who began doing this “as a hobby” - knows his ass from his elbow. Simpson has taken to defending himself. And Butler – who’s a pretty simple (not an insult) guy that just wants to work his ass off, play football and have a great time – has to be thinking to himself that even working at Popeye’s after getting the toe from community college it wasn’t this stressful.
Q. What if Butler gets so pissed he doesn’t re-sign?
A. Time stands still for his career. And what’s he going to do, drive a forklift for a year then come back and play as a restricted free agent at 28? Meanwhile, the Patriots covered themselves by signing Gilmore and they still have Eric Rowe as an outside corner in the fold, Justin Coleman, Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones on the roster and the draft coming up.
Q. Why’s it gotta be like this?
A. Make a nice omelette, you gotta break some eggs. The Patriots signed Rodney Harrison in March 2003 and cut Lawyer Milloy six months later. Milloy!! The embodiment of what the Patriots were about in 2001, the first guy Bill Belichick embraced when they upset the Rams. They hardballed the hell out of Deion Branch in 2006 in a way that mirrors Butler’s situation then shipped Branch to Seattle. They hardballed Adam Vinatieri until he couldn’t wait to sign somewhere else as a free agent. They didn’t yield for prospective Hall of Famer Ty Law. They made Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and Wes Welker go through contract tribulations.
Three of those four had shocking ends to their tenure here. Last decade, the Tom Brady negotiations weren’t all easy sledding. Gronk. Quietly not happy. Jamie Collins. Chandler Jones. Bill Belichick’s organized mind allows him to refer back to his professional marching order: “Do What’s Best for the Football Team” and not get goopy about players and start whipping tens of millions at his best players and treating them like sacred cows.
Q. Why’s he whipping tens of millions at Gilmore then?
A. It’s the system. The Patriots don’t make the rules. They just play by them. (Many in the NFL would contest that assertion). If they want to field a competitive team then they have to pay the going rate for competitive players who are on the market. The ones that aren’t on the market – Butler, Gronk – they have to wait.
Q. What if I don’t like it?
A. I understand. You can swear off football.
Or you can grudgingly watch and openly opine that the presence of Tom Brady lets Belichick get away with all manner of mean and silly personnel decisions.
Or you can put your fingers in your ears and scream “LALALALA!!!” when business talk arises because in Bill You Trust.
Or you can realize that Malcolm Butler isn’t outraged by how much your boss is screwing you over at work. And that his $3.9M is going to keep him in good stead – even after agent fees and taxes – for a few years. And that this hardassed model of business the Patriots employ – while sometimes hard to watch in practice – makes Sunday (and Mondays, Thursdays and the occasional Saturday) really interesting in the fall and winter.
In the TV movie that is Malcolm Butler’s life, the hero and villain would be easily defined. In the real world, it ain’t that simple.