Malcolm Butler is on notice. Plain and simple. Improve your play, improve your attitude, improve your focus or else…
Forget about the idea that Butler was not as prominent a part of the game plan Sunday in New Orleans because of bigger receivers and the matchup issues that can cause for a 5-foot-10 corner. Nope. That’s not what happened. Butler began the game on the pine because the Patriots believe he’s not given them his best in 2017, and that right now, Eric Rowe is better than Butler.
“Well, look, we’re into a new season, so I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday when I asked him directly about Butler’s performance this season. “We all need to do a better job – players, coaches – all of us across the board. Hopefully, we’ll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That’s why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully, we’ll all be able to improve.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was clearly listening to his head coach speak prior to his turn in Tuesday’s conference calls, highlighting the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality that Belichick emphasized.
“It's all about this year,” he said. “I think what things have gone down in the past doesn't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year. The guys that are out there and in positions right now currently and help us win that particular week.”
So Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler is not here right now. Nor is the player the Pats believed in so much that they were willing to let that season’s No. 1 corner, Darrelle Revis, walk and not replace him in 2015. Apparently, there’s no sign of the Malcolm Butler they negotiated a contract extension with last year that came close to completion. Nope. That player, one they leaned on so heavily that he rarely came off the field - he played 98.8 percent of the snaps in ’15 , 96.7 in ’16 - saw part-time duty in the victory over the Saints on Sunday, and his play count might have been significantly lower if not for Rowe leaving the game in the third quarter with a groin injury.
Belichick often talks about how the organization views players: ascending, descending, stagnant. Just a couple of weeks ago that topic came up with regard to Jimmy Garoppolo, who the team views as still on the rise despite rare playing time. You can also be descending or stagnant and still be a player worth working with. Butler is falling into one of those two categories now, while Rowe is someone seen as a riser.
“Well, you know, Eric was in a tough situation last year,” said Belichick. “He came in during the season, didn’t have the benefit of training camp, the foundation of the systems, a lot of catching up on the way, which I thought he did a real good job of and he helped us a lot. But this year it’s been much better for him to be able to be here from the beginning with a year of experience behind him. [He has a] much better understanding of what he’s doing, what our opponents are doing. Some of the techniques and so forth that we use are a little different than what they had in Philadelphia. He’s definitely gaining with the experience that he’s received and earned.”
Earned. That word showed itself again when Patricia spoke.
“Certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint, I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field and whatever that is depending on how the game is going kind of just plays itself out when we're in the particular situation.”
There were some rumblings about Butler’s contract situation impacting behind the scenes a year ago but it didn’t appear to hurt his play. Then, despite an offseason of anger and disappointment and finally realization that the big contract wasn’t coming from the Patriots, Butler, 27, the showed up for voluntary workouts and seemed hellbent on proving his value again, while reminding all he was still the Alpha Dog at corner, not the freshly minted Stephon Gilmore.
Somewhere this summer - the Texans’ joint practice week likely the beginning - Butler lost that edge in Belichick’s mind. Now, it’s entirely on the free agent-to-be to get that back, or he’ll be looking at more days like Sunday and a decreasing payday once he hits the market. There’s also the memory of Jamie Collins still fresh in everyone’s mind. At this point, any and all options are on the table. The proof is in the past.