Patriots

Malcolm Butler saved the Patriots from Malcolm Butler

Malcolm Butler saved the Patriots from Malcolm Butler

When you play man coverage, you have to look at your man. … When you look back at the quarterback, your man has a tendency to move in another direction.”
Mike Vrabel said that on Tuesday. He said it in an effort to explain what Malcolm Butler’s particular cornerbacking malfunction is.

Butler signed a five-year, $61 million free agent contract with Vrabel’s Titans in the offseason.

It’s fair to say neither Vrabel  nor Titans GM Jon Robinson – a former Patriots executive – envisioned an explanation of baseline principals of man-to-man coverage being necessary to help people understand why their $61M corner was giving up touchdowns at an alarming rate.

But, there they are.

And here are the Patriots, Butler’s former employers, flying to Nashville Sunday to further prove they got it right with Butler. On that plane will be Stephon Gilmore, the corner the Patriots paid instead of Butler. Gilmore is playing as well as any defensive back in the NFL over the first half of the season.

But Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio won’t be smug about not making the same mistake the Titans did.

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Because the Patriots tried to make the exact same mistake.

The Patriots’ best and final offer to Butler prior to the 2017 season was a six-year, $66M contract with $25.5M guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.

But Butler balked. Instead of taking that offer in the summer of 2016, Butler and his agents eyed the deal Josh Norman got from the Redskins in April of 2016 – a five-year, $75M deal with $50M guaranteed.

Surely, Butler would do better than that, they believed. So Butler played out the final year of his contract in 2016 making $600,000.

By the end of the 2016 season, the Patriots had a change of heart on Butler. And they decided they’d prefer Gilmore. Having faced Gilmore 10 times since he came into the league as the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Patriots loved Gilmore’s length and natural ability.

The stubbier Butler played at a more continually aggressive pitch than Gilmore but there were times he’d be physically outgunned because of his height. So Gilmore got the five-year, $65M contract with $31M guaranteed.

The Patriots put the first-round tender tag on Butler as a restricted free agent and hoped someone would bite. The New Orleans Saints nearly did. After the two teams talked about swapping Butler and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Patriots traded a first-rounder for Cooks.

Butler then visited with the Saints. If the Saints could sign him to an offer sheet and the Patriots didn’t match, New England would get a first-round pick back.

But it would be New Orleans’ pick – the 10th overall – not the 32nd overall pick the Patriots sent for Gilmore.

The Saints cooled. Butler stayed, played extensively but somewhat inconsistently then was inexplicably benched from the regular defense in Super Bowl 52 after playing virtually every defensive snap all season long.

You may recall.

Imagine how different things might be if Butler just took the deal the Patriots put in front of him in the first half of 2016. Butler was one of the Big-Four defensive players the team needed to find a way to retain or be compensated for.

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They’d already sent Chandler Jones to Arizona. They were still slow-playing Donta Hightower. Nothing was moving with Jamie Collins. Butler was the one they’d keyed on.

Had he signed, would the team have had the dough to retain Hightower? It certainly wouldn’t have had the dough for Gilmore. And there would have been no dalliance with the Saints for Brandin Cooks who, even though he had his limitations, was indispensable in 2017 after the injury to Julian Edelman.

How would Butler have performed after getting paid? Judging by the way things are going in Tennessee, perhaps not too well.

But maybe he would have become a different player, more stable and dependable as opposed to a boom-or-bust defender. And he surely wouldn’t have felt jilted and wronged to the point where – leading into Super Bowl 52 – he’d had enough and just wanted to get to the finish line.

Even if benching Butler in the Super Bowl remains a bastardization of the “do what’s best for the football team” mantra, Butler put himself in position to be benched. And all of it traces back to the contract the Patriots offered him – one pretty similar to the one he got from Tennessee – that Butler turned his nose up to.

So when the Patriots see Vrabel struggle to explain why Butler is directly responsible for seven touchdowns this season, they probably won’t be congratulating themselves but thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I …”

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Rob Gronkowski takes subtle dig at Bill Belichick with fitting comparison

Rob Gronkowski takes subtle dig at Bill Belichick with fitting comparison

Rob Gronkowski can speak freely about the New England Patriots in retirement. And he didn't exactly leave a glowing review of his former boss.

The ex-Patriots tight end, two weeks into his new gig as an "NFL on FOX" analyst, was asked Sunday to describe New England head coach Bill Belichick.

Gronk responded by comparing Belichick to ... the Grinch.

"He’s always trying to take away the fun sometimes, because it’s all business," Gronkowski said. "(He's) taking away the fun and then here I come, you know, all jolly. I’m Santa Claus, Ho Ho Ho!"

Gronk delivered this line jokingly, but history suggests there's some truth behind it. The former tight end reportedly had a strained relationship with Belichick prior to the 2018 season and admitted he didn't enjoy many parts of his Patriots experience over the last two years.

Did Belichick steal Gronk's joy for football like the Grinch stole Christmas? Not entirely, as the 30-year-old's myriad injuries also led to his retirement.

Now that he's no longer in New England, though, Gronkowski has no problem admitting the mastermind head coach isn't always fun to work for.

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With Rex Burkhead (foot) downgraded to out, time to finally see Damien Harris?

With Rex Burkhead (foot) downgraded to out, time to finally see Damien Harris?

The Patriots will be without Rex Burkhead again on Monday night. How will they replace him against the Jets? Will they replace him at all?

Burkhead was ruled out for his team's Week 7 matchup in New Jersey one day after he'd been listed as "questionable" for the game with a foot injury. He was downgraded to "out" on Sunday, ensuring that he'd miss his third consecutive game. Burkhead dealt with a foot injury going into Week 4 in Buffalo and was limited in that game, playing only 12 snaps.

His continued absence is a significant one for the Patriots in that when he's been healthy he's been their best all-purpose back. He leads all Patriots backs in yards per carry (4.7), putting his average more than a full yard better than Sony Michel's (3.5). His yards per reception (8.4) are slightly higher than that of primary pass-catching back James White (7.2). 

Given the injuries the Patriots are dealing with at receiver -- Josh Gordon (knee, ankle) has already been ruled out while Julian Edelman (chest), Phillip Dorsett (hamstring) and Gunner Olszewski (hamstring) are questionable -- Burkhead would've given the Patriots another capable pass-catcher for Tom Brady to turn to. Plus, the Jets have had issues covering backs in the passing game this year. They're 27th in the league in terms of success rate allowed to pass-catching running backs, and they're 22nd in yards per target to running backs. 

In the last three weeks, with Burkhead hurt, White has seen a total of 28 targets. It would come as little surprise if White approached double-digit looks from Brady on Monday night with Burkhead out. Michel (five catches on six targets) and Brandon Bolden (three catches, three targets) have also factored into the passing game with Rex Burkhead out the last two weeks. 

Will Damien Harris make his pro debut in uniform with Burkhead down again? Given little has changed at the running back spot in terms of player availability in the last couple weeks, my guess would be no. 

The Patriots have already made five players inactive: Burkhead, Gordon, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and Michael Bennett. Harris and Korey Cunningham (healthy scratch the last four games) would make sense as the final two. As is the case with Harris, Cunningham's position group hasn't undergone any changes due to injury this week that would prompt his activation. 

Byron Cowart and Joejuan Williams were healthy scratches last week and could be held out again this weekend. But Cowart could end up in uniform with Bennett out. And Williams might have a chance at contributing given that he's played in two games as a special teamer, and he could help the team's secondary depth should Patrick Chung (eight snaps last week, questionable for Monday with heel and chest injuries) be limited. 

There's always the chance that Harris has improved in practice to the point of proving that he's worthy of game action. And if the team has been disappointed in its running game -- 3.4 yards per rush last week, 3.5 on the season -- maybe it'll turn to the third-round rookie for a bit of a spark. 

But if Harris hasn't played to this point, and if little has changed with the health of Patriots backs over the course of the last few weeks, then he may be looking at another game off. 

If this ended up being a "redshirt" season for him, while disappointing for those who enjoyed watching him run with power at Alabama, Harrid could look a few stalls down in the locker room for evidence that a slow start isn't the worst thing for a young back in this offense. White played in just three games as a rookie and touched the ball 14 times. Two years later he was arguably the most valuable player on the field not named Brady in Super Bowl LI.

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