MINNEAPOLIS – New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler rapidly dressed in all black and tried to get out of the locker room as swiftly as possible.
He had just been benched in New England’s stunning 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, driving him to tears on the sideline before the game.
“I ain’t got nothing to say,” Butler said before slinging his backpack over his shoulder and walking out of the stadium.
Later, however, he told ESPN: “They gave up on me” and “I could have changed that game.”
Counting the postseason, Butler started 17 games. On Sunday, he did not play one defensive snap. Patriots coach Bill Belichick later said it was not a disciplinary decision.
“He could’ve helped us,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “Maybe.”
This was a game in which the Patriots did not punt once. Tom Brady threw for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards and added three touchdowns. The Patriots compiled 613 yards of offense, another Super Bowl record. New England posted 33 points – the second-most it has ever scored in a Super Bowl, behind only last year’s 34-point performance in overtime against the Falcons. Sunday's output also set a Super Bowl mark for the highest total scored by a team that lost.
Simply put, the New England offense did enough to win. The defense lost the game.
That makes the absence of Butler – who, despite an inconsistent 2017 season, had been one of New England’s top defensive backs – all the more confounding.
Said cornerback Eric Rowe, the man who replaced Butler in the starting lineup: “We could’ve used anybody.”
Rowe, for his part, said he did not know he was going to start until right before kickoff.
“Yeah, I was,” Eagles receiver Torrey Smith told USA TODAY Sports when asked if he was surprised that Butler was benched. “I didn’t really spend much time watching (Rowe) to be honest with you. I was expecting to see more of Malcolm Butler, but I guess they wanted to go with bigger guys on the outside. That’s their decision.”
Said Eagles defensive end Chris Long: “Malcolm Butler didn't play? That's tough, man. He's a helluva player.”
Led by backup quarterback Nick Foles, Philadelphia shredded New England.
The Eagles converted 10 of 16 (63%) third-down tries. They racked up 538 yards and converted two pivotal fourth-down attempts. Foles, the Super Bowl MVP, completed 28 of 43 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He also caught a score from tight end Trey Burton on a trick play.
The Patriots pass rush failed to generate a sack against Foles and hit him just five times. New England’s one forced turnover, an interception by safety Duron Harmon, came about only because a pass was bobbled by receiver Alshon Jeffery.
“The first drive was really an indication of the whole game,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We play so good (to start) and then one bad play, two bad plays …”
Those plays didn’t stop.
New England’s offense was behind most of the game, trailing by as many as 10 late in the third quarter. But Brady and the rest of the group clawed back and eventually gave the Patriots their only lead of the game with 9:22 left to play off a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Then New England’s defense allowed Philadelphia to score the game’s last nine points in two drives.
“I didn’t do a good enough job,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
Patricia is expected to become the next head coach of the Detroit Lions. Butler is a free agent and a long shot to return after his unexpected benching.
The Patriots, winners of five Super Bowls since 2001, may be embarking on a wave of transition – a rarity in the Belichick-Brady era.
If that comes true, there will be one group shouldering the load of the blame.
“The defense,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said, “just didn’t come to play.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.