“The best interests of the team” is the rationale Bill Belichick offers to explain his decisions. Sometimes he changes it to “the decisions that give the team the best chance to win”, but his point remains the same. He is the head coach, and his job is to make those decisions. And he is right. Head coaches do not answer to the general public, or even team fans, they are employees and are accountable to the owner. However, it surely cannot be lost on a man of Belichick’s intelligence that coaches do not last long once they lose popular support. No owner can ignore his paying customers. Furthermore, while those decisions are certainly Belichick’s to make, that doesn’t mean others are not allowed to scrutinize them or express their opinion. Having said that, if one wants to be fair, one should examine a decision not with hindsight, but based on the available information at the time it was made. And that is what I intend to do with Belichick’s curious decision to bench Malcolm Butler for Super Bowl 52.
Malcolm Butler had played 97 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps this season prior to the Super Bowl. He did not have a great or even good year, but through training camp, 17 weeks of the regular season and two playoff games, 97% of the time they had to send 11 players out to play defense, Malcolm Butler was one of those 11 players. In fact his usage rate is so high that it’s safe to assume that the Patriots did not entertain the thought of replacing him throughout the season. Yet right before the biggest game of the entire season, they decided he wouldn’t play in it and notified him and his replacement Eric Rowe right before kickoff. In all fairness throughout their week of practice, Rowe was playing outside corner and Butler in sub packages, however that made sense given that Butler was expected to match up with the Eagles’ shifty slot receiver, Nelson Agholor. When asked to explain the decision, Belichick offered his usual line, but he did go out of his way to point out not playing Butler was not related to discipline or health issues. That is highly implausible. A starting corner who has played 97% of the snaps can be bumped down to 3rd or even 4th on the depth chart based on performance (both his own and that of others) but keeping him out of the lineup completely is highly implausible, players don’t just forget how to play football. It is likely that we will never learn the real reason for the benching based on how information is guarded in the Patriots organization. What we did learn however, beyond any doubt, is that Belichick has no problem insulting the intelligence of everyone football fan in the world, and offering untrue explanations for his decisions.
Ultimately, it is his own reasoning that does Belichick in. The Patriots’ defense, especially their pass defense was gashed, surrendering 538 yards. Eric Rowe was targeted relentlessly by the Eagles surrendering several big catches to Alshon Jeffery, including a TD, before Belichick adjusted by having Stephon Gilmore travel with Jeffery, who did not catch a pass after that adjustment was made. Patrick Chung, who played slot corner, was clearly miscast in that role. The other sub players (Jordan Richards, Johnson Bademosi) who all had to be moved one spot up on the depth chart due to Butler’s absence were liabilities. And finally, and most importantly, the Patriots surrendered just one sack (a huge one, but still), had just one turnover on offense, generated over 600 yards (including 505 yards passing and 3 touchdowns from Tom Brady), scored 33 points, and lost the Super Bowl because their defense couldn’t stop the Eagles.
How much lower could the Patriots chances to win have been if Butler had played in the game? We will never find out. But when evaluating Belichick performance, it is safe to say that he made a bold decision he felt gave his team the best chance to win and his team didn’t win. And as his mentor Bill Parcells has said “you are what your record says you are”. And Bill Belichick is 0-1 when benching Malcom Butler in the Super Βowl.