The Patriots' decision to bench Malcolm Butler for the Super Bowl remains baffling. Their choice to let him leave via free agency is less surprising but -- considering the state of the New England defense -- still debatable. Yet the Pats insist it was strictly a football decision, nothing more, and Butler himself says the same.
The proof? Butler says that after he signed with the Titans, Bill Belichick called him with congratulations on his new contract, thanks for all he'd done for the Patriots, and praise for choosing an organization -- Tennessee, with ex-Pats executive Jon Robinson as GM and former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel as head coach -- that he thinks is well-run and on the rise.
"No bad blood between me and Bill Belichick," Butler said in an in-depth story on ESPN.com that was published over the weekend. "One of the greatest coaches ever and I care about him, I know he care about me. And this a hurtful game sometimes and it can look different than what it is. But that's my guy . . . I got a lot of respect for him."
Butler told ESPN he was sick with flu-like symptoms the week before the Super Bowl, so sick that he didn't fly with the team to Minnesota on the Monday before the game. He admitted he "fell behind a bit on the game plan and had a rough week in practice," according to the story. When game time arrived, Belichick decided to start Eric Rowe -- who had been sharing snaps with Butler during the week -- in his place.
"This the biggest game of the year, so you gotta shoot your best gun or your best shot," Butler said. "Preparation is the best way to win. And maybe they didn't see 100 percent, mentally or physically, Malcolm Butler that they usually see."
He vehemently denies there were any off-field issues -- missing curfew, attending a concert, even engaging in a fight with one of the coaches (all of which have been rumored) -- that led to the move.
"It was real tough," Butler said. "Most the time I'm not gonna say anything, I'm just gonna chill, play football. I usually just swallow my L or take whatever the treatment dealt, whatever the situation. But it was getting out of hand. I had to say something."
Butler is now reunited with ex-Patriots teammate Logan Ryan in Tennessee.
"Everybody was surprised that happened in the Super Bowl. But I'm not surprised that happened [in Foxboro]," said Ryan. "Sometimes it's like that over there for whatever reason it may be. What they do works in their own way. It didn't work that day. Stuff has been done like that in the past and it's worked. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. But I'm not surprised with that. Everybody is replaceable in the NFL. That's one thing you'll definitely learn over there. It's a lesson for everybody.
"[Butler] didn't need to defend himself. He didn't get the chance to defend himself or say his side, which is fine. I know it was a tough year for him. We talked on the phone and via text. I was very aware of the situation. I felt terrible for him. I know he's hungry. I know last year it wore on him with the contract and added pressure, but I think he's back to his free self and excited to prove people wrong."
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