NFL: Tennessee Titans-Training Camp

Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler makes a catch during drills at St. Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tenn., last month. The former Patriots cornerback says he still has not been told why he was benched in Super Bowl LII.

NASHVILLE – In the heat of the moment, Malcolm Butler was crushed.

As he left U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., he briefly explained to reporters that the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick gave up on him. Butler was dejected after the Patriots 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. After leading the Patriots in defense snaps that season, and playing every defensive snap in the playoffs leading up to that game, Butler was benched.

In the end, Butler’s Super Bowl LII performance was one snap on special teams. He didn’t receive an explanation why he didn’t play that day. It sounds like he still doesn’t know. A year and a half later, however, Butler can finally look back on that day and joke about it.

“No, no regrets at all. I mean, I graded out 99%. One punt return rep,” Butler said laughing. “So, it was great, man. I enjoyed my time there. Everything happens for a reason. I’m still happy. I’m still in the NFL. I still have a great relationship with those guys. It’s all good.”

It took Butler some time to process what happened. Fans and the media alike made a big deal about the benching as the Patriots defense was torched by Nick Foles and the Eagles offense. Why on earth would Belichick bench a cornerback who was named a Second-team All-Pro the year before? Was it due to an injury? Discipline?

We had no answers then. Eighteen months later, everyone is still searching.

“Where the hoodie at? You’ve got to go ask him,” Butler said when asked if knew the answer. “It’s the past, man. I’m past that. I’ll see on Saturday.”

Butler’s time with the Patriots didn’t end how he wanted it to. His story, however, will go down as one of the greatest tales in Patriots and perhaps NFL history. That tale, along with the friendships he made, is a big reason why he’s able to look back on his four years in New England with fond memories.

In 2014, Butler made the Patriots 53-man roster as an unknown, undrafted free agent from Division 2 West Alabama. As the season went on, Butler was buried on a loaded cornerback depth chart. He was behind Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan. He appeared in 11 games, registering just 15 tackles.

No one expected him to make an impact in Super Bowl LI against the Seattle Seahawks, but Butler’s game-securing interception on the goal line will go down as one of the greatest plays in NFL history. That interception made him a star overnight.

Little did anyone know, Butler’s teammates saw his potential. That summer, Revis, a future Hall-of-Fame cornerback, told him he had talent during that first training camp.

“I can remember Darrelle Revis telling me that I got talent, but I just need to learn the game,” Butler said. “I started learning the game instead of just going out there playing with my athletic ability. I started becoming a student of the game, so that helped me out a lot. Just growing up and being responsible. Those guys taught me a lot.”

Butler replaced Revis as the Patriots No. 1 cornerback in 2015. That season marked his first Pro Bowl bid. In 2016, he was even better, earning All-Pro honors. Butler’s time in Foxborough started to get rocky in 2017 when the Patriots handed Stephon Gilmore a big contract. Butler was a restricted free agent that offseason and seemed bother by the fact that the team didn’t pay him.

Butler’s play declined a bit in 2017, but he said he leaned on Gilmore, who also had some struggles in his first season in Foxborough.

“We both had our ups and downs when we played together,” Butler said. “I think that’s what bonded us together. (Gilmore)’s doing a lot of great things over there.”

Admittedly, all the noise after Super Bowl LII was tough for Butler to block out, but in the end, he cashed in with a five-year, $61.25 million contract with the Tennessee Titans. Now, he’s able to smile about his time in New England.

Butler didn’t play much Super Bowl LII, but he’ll always have that one special team rep.

“I know the guy (I was covering on special teams) was real fast,” Butler said smiling. “I went 100%.”