MINNEAPOLIS -- Malcolm Butler's career as a Patriot is bookended by two indelible images.
Staggering from the field near the end of Super Bowl 49 in February 2015, supported by teammates, tears streaming, processing what he'd done to change NFL history with the most improbable play a Super Bowl's ever seen.
And February 2018, standing on the sidelines before SB52 even began, tears streaming down his face, teammates again on either side of Butler as he was perhaps realizing he wasn't going to see the field at all.
And that, too, puts Butler at the center of NFL history.
I still don't think it's hyperbolic to say that, if Butler played against the Eagles, the Patriots would have won.
And that win would have put them eyeball-to-eyeball with the Steelers in all-time Super Bowls. It would have been the second time that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had won three in four years and the second time they'd won back-to-back.
Butler not playing is a part of NFL lore now, right there with Max McGee's hungover heroics in SB1 and Barrett Robbins going AWOL before SB37.
What happened? We're working on it. But it may turn out to be a "last straw" violation that landed Butler on the bench as opposed to one act of insubordination or stupidity. As colleague Mike Giardi said:
Look, I love Malcolm Butler's story as much as the next guy. His competitveness is admirable. But let's not make him out to be a martyr here. Lot to this story. Just because BB isn't giving you the rundown doesn't mean there's nothing there.— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) February 5, 2018
Butler's a good kid but he's routinely run afoul of rules since high school.
How does an SEC-level talent end up having to matriculate at West Alabama after getting kicked out of Hinds Community College? Decisions.
Remember Butler wasn't allowed to participate on the field in the 2015 minicamp because he missed a flight and showed up late?
Remember the Twitter "like" of a post earlier this year that was critical of the Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's plan?
Remember the arm-waving and foot-stomping he'd do if he felt a teammate blew a coverage?
How many little things have there been? Who really knows?
MORE ON BUTLER
- Bean: If Butler was healthy and his benching was football-related, as the Pats claim, this was Belichick's Pete Carroll moment
The Patriots wanted Butler to be their shutdown corner replacement for Darrelle Revis, and in 2015 he kind of was.
But they kept slow-playing his payday and he kept doing a slow burn. Finally, last offseason, after generous but somewhat incentive-laden deals were turned down, they spent $65 million on Stephon Gilmore.
That sealed Butler's future here. He good-soldiered it as long and as well as he could. He continued to be a well-liked teammate.
But would it surprise anyone if a little bitterness and senioritis crept in and Butler became a little more cavalier about doing what he was told?
Which is why we should slow-play the full reaction until we know the full story.
Rumors are circulating on this Monday of meltdowns, missed curfews, perhaps a missed flight and maybe more.
You've seen them and so have I and this is where I kind of get it with Belichick. Though it's not what I'm looking for as a reporter, I can see why he'd rather obfuscate then say, "Malcolm did X, Y and Z and we benched him. Hope he has a nice life."
Maybe Butler owns up to whatever he did. Or we get it all confirmed. But Belichick isn't going to tell us chapter and verse about a "personnel situation" and there's a little nobility in that.
But since we don't know, we still can't bring out our scales of justice.
ALSO ON NBCSPORTSBOSTON.COM
Was the "nobody-is-bigger-than-the-team" message Belichick was clearly delivering truly worth the cost?
A player who has capably covered the game's best players 1-on-1 -- T.Y. Hilton, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders -- wasn't watching solely because he didn't fit the defensive packages. That we know.
And I suspect that Belichick didn't tell Butler or his replacement, Eric Rowe, well in advance because of the reaction it would spark from Butler and maybe from his teammates.
And their reaction is the tip of the iceberg. A Super Bowl win is worth millions to the franchise and ownership. It's legacy time down in Foxboro and Robert Kraft's is in there, too.
I have a feeling there's a General MacArthur-Harry Truman struggle going on where "the franchise" is Robert's but "the team" is Bill's.
And the eye-widening way the Jimmy Garoppolo trade played out feels a little like evidence of that as well.
I don't know how this all ends. But I'm damn sure it's not over.