FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler wants you to know he’s happy in Foxboro, even as the clock ticks toward an end date on his time here.
“Most definitely. Most definitely,” he told me, repeating those words as he often does. “This is where I’m at. I always remember where I came from. I am.”
There is a familiar refrain around the Patriots, filtered from the coach, Bill Belichick, all the way down to the practice squad players. You may have heard it once or twice . . .
”Ignore the noise.”
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For the better part of the last six months, that has been challenging for Butler. A prideful man, he was stung not only by the Pats' unwillingness to pay him what he thinks he’s worth but also by the blindsiding, first-day free-agent payout to former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore. That’s been well-documented by this writer dating back to those wildly emotional days, something Butler -- in quiet moments -- reaffirmed that to me initially and later to both the media throng and the Sunday Night Football crew prior to Atlanta game last weekend. That pain will never go away, but Butler is doing his best to dull it.
“You try not to think about,” he said. “You try . . . The only thing I can do is play the best I can and try to pick it up another notch, which I am, which I will do. Every single one of us [will].”
Butler’s inconsistency has been uncommon. In each of his previous two seasons, you could almost guarantee what kind of performance you were going to get from the ultra-competitive cornerback. This year? Not so much.
Has Butler been distracted? Has the uncertainty of his future weighed on him?
“No, not really,” he insisted. “I’m the type of guy that lives a day at a time -- or tries. We all try. That’s what we should do. I just try to live one day at a time. You never know what could happen at any time.”
Professionally, that was hammered home to Butler when Gilmore got $31 million guaranteed from Belichick and the Pats. There’s no question that’s not an easy pill to swallow and created an odd dynamic for Butler to navigate around and through.
I asked him about this relationship with Gilmore and what it’s been like.
“Steph is a good, good guy,” he stated. “We help each other. Everything is kind of new for him, but no excuses. I enjoy playing with him. He loves playing the game just like I do. Everybody loves him, including myself . . . "
Butler steered the conversation back to football because he’d would rather the attention be focused on his play. That’s why -- on occasion -- he’s passed on making himself available to reporters until game day, although as a veteran of this market he says knowingly “all of this comes with the territory. You just gotta take it as it comes and keep rolling.”
Finding that roll has been difficult. There was the snaps reduction in New Orleans and communication issues that were evident as recently as two Sundays ago against the Jets. But Butler made two huge plays in that win over New York and then backed it up with his best performance of the season in the Super Bowl rematch with the Falcons. It wasn’t just the competitive coverage versus significantly bigger receivers Julio Jones and Mohamad Sanu, but also his fearlessness playing run force, a trademark of Butler’s during his time here. The 27-year-old was excited not only about his play, but the play of the entire group.
“You just feel it as a group,” he said. “You feel it during the week. You feel like everyone is coming together, everyone is gelling together. It wasn’t going to happen in the first game or second game. Sometimes it does -- but for the most part, it takes time to build one unit, together. We’re building and we’e coming along well.”
He added, “We’re speaking the right language. We want to stay on the one side . . . the good side.”
But lest you get too far ahead of yourself, Butler cautioned that one game is just that one game. That consistency from game to game -- and play to play -- is critical in this defense becoming the defense it believes it can be.
“We just have to all get on the same page and find a rhythm," he said. "You can’t just have one game that’s a really great game or one player have a good game, or several players even. We all have to do that. That will bring a lot of momentum toward the team.”
A team that Butler may not belong to once the season comes to an end. But right now it seems to have his full attention.