Patriots

Giardi: Butler's offseason may cut deep, but it's time for him to battle back

Giardi: Butler's offseason may cut deep, but it's time for him to battle back

This hasn’t been easy for Malcolm Butler. None of it. He’s never been given anything. Hell, at times he’s pissed his future away. But with a tenacity that reminds you of a certain 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Butler has fought his way back, into college, into the pros and, in 2015 and 2016, into the upper echelon of NFL cornerbacks. He’s a two-time Super Bowl champ, making arguably the most memorable play in the history of that game.

He should be drinking in the adulation, savoring an incredible start to his career and a very lucrative future. Instead, he’s in both professional and Patriots purgatory. Free agency beckons but there’s a season to play, and as this is the only professional team he’s known, a burning desire to be recognized as an important piece, not just in the present, but the future of this organization as well.

MORE: Mailbag: Malcolm's in the middle of a confidence crisis
 
One of his closest friends on the team, Dion Lewis, calls Butler a warrior. “The game means so much to him.”

Another teammate, fellow defensive back Devin McCourty said of Butler, “This is what he does. He competes.”

Duron Harmon insists that the 27-year-old corner has been the same guy he’s always been. Actually, they all say that. But clearly, the coaching staff sees something different, leading to Butler’s demotion Sunday in New Orleans. 
 
Bill Belichick has been short when talking about Butler dating all the way back to the spring. That hasn’t changed now that the games count. He’s dismissed past performance. All that matters is how you’re playing now. Butler has not established that same level. Why? There is no easy answer.
 
The lack of a new contract cuts deeply. The unsettling offseason -- was he going to be a Saint? -- left quite a mark as well. But Butler came back to Foxboro with purpose, reporting for voluntary workouts. He was hell-bent on proving to all -- Belichick included -- that he was still the lead dog, not Stephon Gillmore, despite the $31 million dollars in guaranteed money the organization forked over to the former Buffalo Bill.
 
That strategy worked for a time. Butler was one of the Pats best players in training camp, right up until the joint practices with the Texans midway through August. What happened? Butler doesn’t know. But one mistake became two. His play in the preseason game with Houston was poor. His confidence suffered. He started pressing. That didn’t help. Butler was just as bad at Detroit. The kid that had always answered a knockdown with one of his own, instead wobbled to his feet. The inconsistencies were evident in practice but the "he's-Malcolm-he'll-fix-it" thought process that teammates echoed didn’t prove true, at least not entirely.
 
According to Eric Rowe, the cornerbacks were informed of the role change at the beginning of last week. But other teammates said they didn’t realize Butler wasn’t starting until the walkthrough Saturday. The ensuing fallout wasn’t surprising -- HE’S MALCOLM BUTLER, SUPER BOWL HERO, DAMMIT -- but the worry around the team has been justified because Butler takes things to heart. His swagger comes from the game. That was stripped away prior to the game against the Saints, and even at the beginning of this week, leading into the Texans game. Butler had to get his head right. If his meeting with the media Thursday is an indication, he has.

But the proof is in the play. Butler has always known that. And while his play didn’t warrant a role reduction, another message has been sent by the powers that be in Foxboro. What happens next is all on Butler. His future depends on it.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Steelers lock up AFC North with 39-38 win over Ravens

steelers_ravens_antonio_brown_121017.jpg

Steelers lock up AFC North with 39-38 win over Ravens

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier was everywhere. His helmet rested on the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench. His jersey too. His face and #Shalieve stitched on specially-designed cleats. His familiar No. 50 printed in white in the middle of a gold circle on T-shirts worn by teammates searching for a way to let Shazier know he is never far from their mind as he recovers from a spinal injury that put the linebacker's blossoming career in jeopardy.

Shazier may never play football again. That doesn't make him any less of a Steeler. And the men who have taken so much from him over the last three-plus years decided it was time they gave him something back in return: the AFC North title he ordered them to lock down without him.

Chris Boswell made a 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left and Pittsburgh's defense overcame a shaky night without their most dynamic player to shut down Baltimore's last-gasp drive and hold on for a 39-38 victory on Sunday night to capture their third division title in the last four years.

"We are riding with that guy," head coach Mike Tomlin said of Shazier. "He is strong. He is strengthening us."

Looked like it.

The Steelers (11-2) trailed by 11 points going into the fourth quarter but capped an emotionally draining week to rally for their eighth straight victory, one they couldn't wait to share with Shazier, who joined the giddy postgame celebration via Facetime.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to top 500 yards passing three times. Antonio Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards, including two long gains in the fourth quarter that allowed the Steelers to recover after blowing an early 14-point lead. Le'Veon Bell had 125 yards of total offense and scored three touchdowns .

"We can win a shootout against anybody," Bell said. "I feel like we can score points whenever we need to."

Good thing, because Pittsburgh might have to. The Ravens (7-6) rolled up 414 yards against the NFL's fourth-ranked defense and recovered from a slow start to score on five consecutive drives and six out of seven to take a 38-29 lead on Javorius Allen's second touchdown with 6:44 left.

Not much time against most teams. Far too much against the Steelers.

Roethlisberger and Brown, who is mounting a legitimate MVP candidacy, hooked up on a 57-yard connection set up an 11-yard sprint by Bell with 3:29 to go. The Steelers forced the Ravens into a three-and-out and Roethlisberger calmly led Pittsburgh within field goal range, including a 34-yard lob down the sideline to Brown that set up Boswell's winner.

Baltimore's Joe Flacco threw for 269 yards passing with two touchdowns and one interception but was strip-sacked by rookie linebacker T.J. Watt on the Ravens' final snap.

"This one hurts," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We lose to them the same way we did last year. This one sucks, but we've got to get over it. Yeah, this one's going to hurt but it's best for us to have a short memory on this one because if we win out there's a good chance we'll be in (the playoffs)."

Shazier, who's been in the hospital since injuring his spine in the first quarter of last week's victory over Cincinnati, told his teammates to finish the work he helped start. Even as they celebrated an important step in a journey they hope will carry them deep into the postseason, they were making plans to keep Shazier involved, starting with a late-night trip to the hospital to deliver him his AFC North champions' swag.

"We are going to give him the hat and T-shirt tonight," good friend and fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams said.

When someone mentioned visitor's hours were probably over, Williams repeated "tonight." Then, it was home to rest before preparing for a showdown with New England next Sunday.

"That's the crazy part about the NFL, things constantly change and you've got to keep rolling," Williams said. "So you've got to find a way to roll with the punches even though it may be a haymaker, got to find a way to recover."

HONORING SHAZIER

Linebacker James Harrison took to the field shirtless during warmups even as temperatures hovered in the low-30s, a nod to one of Shazier's pregame rituals. When Roosevelt Nix drilled Moore on the opening kickoff, Nix lifted his jersey to show the T-shirt most of the Steelers wore at some point during the night.

BRING ON THE PATS

The Steelers fell to New England in a one-sided loss in the AFC championship game 10 months ago. They're not exactly intimidated by the prospect of facing Tom Brady and company.

"You act like they're coming in with Kryptonite, Superman and Batman and Avatars and stuff," Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey said. "Heck yeah, it's a regular football game, what do you mean? We're going to go out there, tackle the football and run the football."

UP NEXT

Ravens: Visit winless Cleveland next Sunday. Baltimore beat the Browns 24-10 on Sept. 17.

Steelers: Will try to beat Brady and New England for the first time since 2011 next Sunday.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE