When NBC's Super Bowl 52 telecast panned across the Patriots during the national anthem, Malcolm Butler was shown to be teary-eyed. As it turned out, the cornerback who became the unexpected hero of Super Bowl 49 had just found out that he was benched for Sunday's championship game, one New England would go on to lose to the Eagles in high-scoring fashion, 41-33.
Afterward, a disconsolate Butler told ESPN's Mike Reiss, "They gave up on me. F---. It is what it is."
"I don't know what it was," Butler added. "I guess I wasn't playing good or they didn't feel comfortable. I don't know. But I could have changed that game."
During the regular season, Butler led all Patriots defensive players with a 97.83 snap percentage (per Pro-Football Reference), and he played every snap of New England's first two postseason games. However, just before the Super Bowl kicked off, Butler was told he would be replaced by fellow cornerback Eric Rowe, a decision that surprised even the latter player.
"No, that wasn't the plan," Rowe said (via NFL.com). "It wasn't official until kickoff. . . . I feel for [Butler]."
After the game, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was asked about his decision to bench Butler, who only took the field on a few special-teams plays. "We put the best players and game plan out there that we felt was best for tonight, like we always do," Belichick said in typically terse manner.
"It was a coach's decision," said Butler, whose goal-line interception sealed the Patriots' Super Bowl win over the Seahawks in 2015. "I was just doing my job and supporting my teammates. I have nothing but great things to say about the organization. They gave me an opportunity. That's about it."
Making Belichick's decision even more of a head-scratcher was that Rowe struggled in coverage Sunday, as did the Patriots' secondary in general. Nick Foles, the Eagles quarterback who was the backup until Carson Wentz tore a knee ligament, threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors, while New England frequently had safeties covering the slot position, from which Philadelphia's Nelson Agholor racked up nine catches for 84 yards.
One former Patriots player laid the blame for the loss squarely on Belichick for overthinking.
"Lost the game for us tonight," former cornerback Brandon Browner captioned an Instagram photo of Belichick. "Stupid decision and makes no sense. You make the decision to give us the best chance to win. But u don't play your best cornerback. F--- the politics."
"A locker room was divided pre game," he added in another post and he also pointed out that the Eagles amassed "the most passing yards in Super Bowl history."
Browner also sent a message to Butler, whose future in New England is uncertain. "Your spirit was all over that game tonight. Definitely seen it, they had safeties covering WR to prove a point. God bless u my friend, keep fighting, I saw you tear up pre game, first sign. You done a lot for that team and that community it's ok to move on."
On NFL Network's postgame show, analysts and former players LaDainian Tomlinson and Deion Sanders agreed that benching Butler cost the Patriots dearly. Pointing out that New England often employed a scheme that had safeties covering slot receivers with no extra help, Sanders said, "I feel like [Butler] would have been a better fit for the defensive calls today."