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.

MORE PATRIOTS

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.

MORE PATRIOTS

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 …”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Aaron Rodgers describes how 'Belichick effect' has impacted the NFL

Aaron Rodgers describes how 'Belichick effect' has impacted the NFL

The Green Bay Packers are preparing for a battle the San Francisco 49ers on the NFL's championship Sunday. The two will square off in the NFC Championship for the right to advance to the Super Bowl.

While Aaron Rodgers and his teammates are doing what they can to be ready for the game, they still aren't exactly sure what to expect from the 49ers.

And Rodgers credited Bill Belichick's influence for that.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Rodgers explained in a post-practice interview that not knowing what to expect from opposing defenses is something that has been popularized over the course of the past five years. And he called the defense's ability to change up week to week "the Belichick effect".

"I think that’s the NFL in the last five years, especially, it’s kind of the Belichick effect where teams are more reluctant to really try and scheme up opponents instead of relying on their base defense," Rodgers said to reporters.

"There’s less and less teams like the Lovie Smith Bears defenses over the years that say ‘Hey, screw it, we’re going to play four-man front, play Tampa-2 the entire game and make you go the whole field, and strip the ball and tackle securely and stop the run with a six-man, seven-man front.’

"There’s more teams that are scheming specifically up for teams. I think the tough part is it might be different than you saw on film. The drawback from that is a lot of these teams are used to playing coverages they’re not used to playing, they’re not super-comfortable playing, they don’t have a lot of reps in and that can cause some confusion at times."

Rodgers hit the nail on the head as the NFL's best defenses have become more versatile and game plan-dependent in recent seasons. Having multiple defensive looks is essential to success in the modern NFL and Belichick's ability to adjust week in and week out played a big role in kicking off the trend.

Though the Patriots won't have a chance to out scheme anyone on the defensive side of the ball until next season, they can be thankful that they have a forward-thinking coach at the helm. His ability to adjust on defense as well as Josh McDaniels' ability to change the Patriots offense look to match their best weapons have helped to make the team difficult to figure out.

And that's a big part of the reason that they have been able to make multiple deep postseason runs in recent seasons.

Click here to subscribe to the Tom E. Curran Patriots Talk Podcast

Packers aiming to match rare playoff feat last accomplished by Patriots in 2001

Packers aiming to match rare playoff feat last accomplished by Patriots in 2001

The Green Bay Packers earned an impressive 13-3 record in the regular season, but they haven't always looked like an elite team.

The NFC North champs ranked 15th in points scored, 18th in yards gained and 18th in yards allowed. These numbers don't exactly jump off the page. The Packers also lacked a signature win, and with a chance to make a statement versus the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12, Green Bay was dominated in a 38-7 loss.

However, if veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads his team to an NFC Championship Game victory on the road against the 49ers on Sunday, the Packers will become the first team since the 2001 New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl after being outgained in the regular season (h/t to NFL Media's Mike Giardi).

The Packers defense gave up 5,642 total yards, while their offense racked up 5,528 total yards, resulting in a difference of minus-114 yards through 16 regular-season games.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

This trend continued in last weekend's NFC Divisional Round matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers escaped with a 28-23 win at Lambeau Field, but the Seahawks outgained them by 31 yards. It also was the Packers' 10th game of the season decided by one score, and Green Bay owns a 9-1 mark in those matchups.

How have the Packers won so many games despite being outgained on a consistent basis? Well, it sure helps to have a quarterback as talented as Rodgers.

The future Hall of Famer sealed the Packers' victory last week with two clutch third-down conversions late in the fourth quarter. It wasn't an all-time performance from Rodgers, but when it's winning time, he usually steps up and makes a huge play. 

Rodgers' playoff experience and ability to come through in the clutch give the Packers an important advantage at the quarterback position entering Sunday's NFC title game. Oddsmakers, however, have still pegged the 49ers as an overwhelming betting favorite.