Great Patriots Debate: If Malcolm Butler played in SB52, would the Patriots have won?


It was the decision that melted the brains of “In Bill We Trust” lemmings.

Malcolm Butler not playing a single defensive snap for the Patriots in Super Bowl 52 as the Philadelphia Eagles went up and down the field on their way to a 41-33 win.

The Eagles went 12 for 18 on third and fourth down. Nick Foles threw for 373 yards. Tight end Trey Burton threw for 1. Wide receivers Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery combined for 17 catches and 208 yards.

A 505-yard passing performance by Tom Brady went for naught.

Would the Patriots have won the game if Butler played?

Obviously, it’s a hypothetical.

But the previous game, Butler played all 74 defensive snaps against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship. He played 97.83 percent of the snaps for the team in the regular season. He was the team’s starting corner, an integral part of the defense. In Game 19, the Patriots switched it all up.

Eric Rowe played 96 percent of the snaps in the Super Bowl – up from 62 percent in the AFCCG. Defensible. He was bigger than Butler and perhaps a better physical matchup for Philly’s tall receivers.

But the next domino that fell as a result of Butler’s absence was forced usage of corner Johnson Bademosi and safety Jordan Richards. Neither played a defensive snap in the AFCCG. They were on the field for a combined 26 plays in the Super Bowl.

Butler’s absence also meant the Patriots used Patrick Chung differently against the Eagles so – where he might have been checking Corey Clement on the third-and-3 wheel route that Richards brutalized, he was instead checking Agholor. That was one of the game’s most decisive plays.

Up there with it? A third-and-6 conversion to Agholor when Bademosi put forth a tackling effort that would have had a Pee Wee coach irate.

Bottom line, they shouldn’t have been out there. But Butler wasn’t even an IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS option.


Well, the reason given by defensive coordinator Matt Patricia after the game was that Butler didn’t fit with any of the “packages” the team employed.

Belichick denied that there was any disciplinary reason. Butler spitballed that maybe he wasn’t as focused as he should have been after being ill earlier in the week and showing up to Minnesota a day late.

Obviously, there’s a whole lot more to this story than anyone’s yet blabbed and it’s been so well-veiled that even Butler’s teammates have professed to not know exactly what happened. Their collective irritation with the decision has not been as well-veiled.

It’s always been interesting to me that the Patriots stuck Butler on the field for one special teams play. He hadn’t played a special teams snap in the previous 18 games. Why would they do that? So they could say Butler wasn’t technically benched.

Either way, the Eagles were the big beneficiaries. They made some absurd plays in that game that even the 2015 Butler wouldn’t have helped against. But they also made plays against a defense that Belichick chose to play at a diminished level.

If Butler played, the Patriots would have had their sixth ring a year earlier and been the first team to repeat as champs since, well, they did in 2003-2004.

For the greatest coach in NFL history, the cost of benching Butler will always stare up at him from the ledger.


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