New England Patriots

Why was Malcolm Butler benched in Super Bowl LII?

Bill Belichick's puzzling decision remains the biggest mystery of the Patriots dynasty.

NBC Universal, Inc.

New England Patriots fans are still left without an answer to the most questionable decision of the Bill Belichick era.

Three years after his Super Bowl XLIX heroics, Malcolm Butler didn't play a defensive snap in the Patriots' Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The former cornerback shed tears on the sideline after being told just before the game that he wouldn't play.

The Nick Foles-led Eagles went on to torch the Patriots defense. They totaled 373 yards through the air and put up 41 points to spoil Tom Brady's 505-yard, three-touchdown performance.

For reasons that remain unknown, then-Patriots head coach Bill Belichick kept Butler on the bench despite his secondary's glaring struggles. There have been theories, such as an alleged altercation with then-defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in practice, but Butler and his ex-teammates swear to this day that they don't know why he didn't see the field.

"He called me when he came back (in 2022) and he was like, 'Hey, Belichick just called me, I might come back.'" ex-Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Felger & Mazz last month. "And I was like, 'Really?' I was like, 'You took a year off, how have you been? But you would really come back here?' And he's like, 'Yeah!' And I was like, 'Yeah, but what's going on? What happened?' And he didn't say anything.

"The next year, me and Brian Flores, who was the defensive coordinator the next year (after) Matty P (Matt Patricia) leaves, and he goes to me, 'I don't want what happened to Seattle.' ... That team was phenomenal. We beat them in that Super Bowl and that team falls apart. He says that to me and I go, 'All right, cool, I agree with you. But what happened? Why didn't (Butler) play? And he goes, 'I don't know.' I've never heard anyone talk about why he didn't play. I don't know."

The subject of Butler's benching was covered during Episode 9 of Apple TV+'s Patriots docuseries, The Dynasty.

“People still ask me about it to this day," Butler said in the episode. "Why you ain’t play in the Super Bowl? ‘I don’t know, coaches decision.’ But the thing about it is I really don’t know. I really don’t. Just to like, leave me watching my team suffer when I know I can help them, like not one rep. Not one rep.” 

Patriots owner Robert Kraft revealed that Belichick's decision was likely due to something personal between the head coach and Butler.

“What has been told to me is that there was something personal going on between Bill and Malcolm that was not football related," Kraft said in Episode 9 of The Dynasty. "I always felt that every decision Bill had made had been to put what’s in the best interest of the team first and put emotion aside. But with Malcolm, he did just the opposite.”

Belichick's costly move didn't sit well with Kraft, who wondered whether his head coach was starting to lose it.

"I credited Bill with that loss. To be honest, my head coach is a pain in the tush. But I was willing to put up with it as long as we won," he said.

The following season, Belichick made up for his error with a memorable coaching performance in Super Bowl LIII. The Patriots put on a defensive clinic in a 13-3 win over Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams, who were an offensive powerhouse all year.

Butler left the Patriots after the 2017 season for the Tennessee Titans, where he spent his final three years in the NFL. He surprisingly returned to New England in March 2022 but was placed on injured reserve and released just before the season.

We unfortunately may never know the real reason for Butler's benching as Belichick remains unwilling to discuss the topic. What we do know is it was a bizarre blemish on the legendary coach's otherwise stellar 20-year stretch.

Contact Us