Patriots

Curran: Butler benching maddening capper to weird year

Curran: Butler benching maddening capper to weird year

MINNEAPOLIS – I’m not taking the cheese tonight. I’ve taken the cheese before and then had to walk it back. It’s no fun.

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So, I’m going to wait before I arm flap with full indignation about the benching of Malcolm Butler. Bill Belichick’s been doing this too long for it to just boil down to him having had enough of Butler’s act. There has to be something more that we still haven’t learned in these hours after the Patriots' 41-33 loss to Philly.

You know it, I know it, the country knows it -- and most importantly, the Patriots themselves know it -- that keeping Malcolm Butler on the bench cost them Super Bowl 52.

Bill Belichick said it was football-related, not disciplinary.

Matt Patricia vomited this word soup up on the podium when asked why Butler didn’t play: “We were just trying to run some packages we had on defense and those guys that were out there were out there for all the situations that we needed them for. So, 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.”

Standard double-speak. Frustrating? Disingenuous? Absolutely.

Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards were out there trying to cover people in key situations while a guy who quite literally saved a Super Bowl for them three years ago was rotting on the sidelines? Whoops. C’est la vie. That’s the way it goes. Couldn’t find a spot for him.

Naaahhhh.

You know it, I know it, the country knows it, there had to be a bigger transgression from Butler somewhere along the line for him to get benched. 

If being short and playing at less than a Pro Bowl-level for them this year were truly sins, the mind reels at what kind of punishment the mechanical and easily duped Richards deserves.

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This is a coaching staff that’s put Troy Brown, Julian Edelman and Matt Slater in to play defense when things got dicey. This is the same coaching staff that had enough of Kyle Arrington in Super Bowl 49 and yanked him in favor of the undrafted, unknown Butler.

Whatever Butler did, it better rise to the level of insubordination that makes a forfeited championship worth it.

Because everyone deserved better. The players and coaches who give their lives up to get to this spot, they deserved to be able to give the Eagles their best shot. That meant Butler on the field at some point trying to stop Nick Foles from riddling them for 373 yards and three touchdown passes while the Philly offense went 10-for-16 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down and amassed 538 total yards.

Bill Belichick’s earned the benefit of the doubt, so I’m going to hold it until we find out the real reason the Butler didn’t get to do anything.

This wasn’t Wes Welker benched at the beginning of the AFC Divisional Playoff against the Jets for a pile of foot jokes. By football standards, this is capital punishment.

Eric Rowe, who started in place of Butler said he didn’t know prior to the game he was starting.

“No, that wasn’t the plan,” Rowe said when I asked him at the postgame press conference. “It wasn’t official until kickoff.”

It was unmistakable that Butler’s teammates were at a loss and upset Butler didn’t play. While there weren’t any open lamentations about the coaching decision to sit Butler, it was easy to read the facial expressions and body language when the question was posed. Of course, it hurt the team.

And that’s where the weirdness of it all comes in.

How many times have we heard Belichick say over the years that he does what’s best for the football team? A few thousand?

And on the biggest stage, in the biggest game, Butler watched while the defense got carved up? You have to do some amazing mental contortions to divine how that was what was best for the football team.

Unless letting Butler play in spite of whatever offense he committed was a bridge too far for Belichick. Whatever it was, it better have been worth sacrificing a championship for.

It’s been a weird, weird year.

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The Jimmy Garoppolo trade for a bag of kicking tees at the trade deadline. The Brady-Belichick tension that’s been ongoing. The omnipresent vibe that this ride’s almost over and people are getting strange as this dynasty wheezes into the station.

Earlier this week, “The Two Bills” 30 for 30 documentary detailed the weirdness and strange dysfunction of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick’s split. Clashing egos, clandestine deal-making and power struggles had far-reaching impacts on NFL history.

Does it seem that foreign from what we’re seeing right now? Even as the game rolled along, the speculation that Josh McDaniels was going to leave the Colts at the altar and stay in New England was flying.

Does that mean he’s staying? And if so, does that mean he’s elevating to replace Belichick? If so, why so?

We don’t know why Malcolm Butler sat. We don’t know what Bill Belichick’s going to do. We don’t know if Josh McDaniels is staying or going.

What we do know is the Patriots lost a Super Bowl to the Eagles and a one-time Super Bowl hero turned into a Super Bowl zero. Strange days, indeed. 

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With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

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Report: James Harrison could return to Patriots

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Report: James Harrison could return to Patriots

James Harrison was a larger than life figure during his time in Pittsburgh. 

It was as if God molded him to be a member of the Steelers: massive, physical, and an absolute bruiser.

But at the end of the day he is a football player. And athletes in this sport don't particuarly like time on the bench.

Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers organization were reminded of this fact in a very harsh manner.

At the end of the December, Harrison made a late season move to sign with the Patriots. It left his former teammates in Pittsburgh frustrated, and his former fans confused.

But at the end of the day he just wanted to be on the football field again. And that's exactly where Belichick put him.

Harrison had the opportunity to appear in many more situations, and had several sacks at the end of the season.

Now there is a new report from Christopher Price of the Boston Sports Journal that he could re-sign with the Patriots in 2018.

A source close to Price and Harrison said "there's a reasonable chance" that he could be on the roster next year.

He will be playing this upcoming season at age 40, and has previously stated he'd like to play one or two more seasons.

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