Patriots’ System Comes to the Forefront with Butler’s Last-Second Heroics

Malcolm Butler

Forget for one minute about the misguided strategy of the Seahawks’ coaching staff in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX.

There is little doubt that Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell overthought their situation when they had the ball at the New England one-yard line and chose to ignore Marshawn Lynch with the game on the line. Lynch is the game’s best power back and the situation appeared to be made for him with a tired New England run defense on the field.

Carroll and Bevell took the long-term view of trying to take advantage of New England’s personnel in a goalline situation by throwing a slant pass. The Seattle coaches were not thinking about what could go wrong with the play. They were thinking about how the play would pop right open against an unsuspecting defense.

Except that it didn’t pop open. Instead, when the Super Bowl was on the line, an undrafted rookie with excellent athletic ability who had received superb coaching, was more ready for the moment than anyone on the field.

Rookie Malcolm Butler of Vicksburg, Miss. came to the Patriots after last year’s draft. None of the 32 teams decided he was worth selecting, but New England’s director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort thought enough of the defensive back from West Alabama to let Bill Belichick know he was worth bringing to offseason practices as a “workout guy” who could play.

Butler showed immediately what Ossenfort and his scouting staff already knew. He had the kind of athleticism to fit in, and he proved with his effort that he was not cowed by playing in a pro football camp.

As a matter of fact, it brought out the best in Butler and he played better nearly every day. It didn’t take long for the New England players and the coaching staff to realize that the undrafted free agent was a true player.

“You could tell from the first practice that Malcolm was a player,” said Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich when he was interviewed by a Chicago sports-talk radio station on Monday. “He was out there with the best players and he played like he belonged on the field. That’s how we knew he could play.”

Butler played in 11 regular-season games this year, which is pretty tall cotton for an undrafted player on a team with defensive backs like Darelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty.

Butler also played in all three postseason games, which is indicative of even further progress. He batted away four passes during the postseason, and he competed hard on every play he was on the field for.

But simply competing is not enough for Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and defensive back coach Brian Flores. They don’t put players on the field who are merely going to try hard and put up a good fight.

They want players who are going to win the battle on each play.

From that perspective, no player is ever going to be successful. But the Patriots put more players on the field who are PREPARED to succeed on any one play than any other team.

All of their active players – from 1 to 53 – understand their assignments and what it takes to perform their job successfully. Butler’s ability to take what he learned from film study and on the practice field and apply it on the job is what keyed his interception on the ill-advised slant pass that Russell Wilson threw to Ricardo Lockette.

“I remembered the formation they were in, two receivers stacked, I just knew they were going to [a] pick route,” Butler said. “I just beat him to the route and just made the play.”

Butler didn’t just beat Lockette to the spot. He gave a much greater effort than the Seattle receiver. Lockette is 211 pounds and after he made his move, all of his momentum was going toward the goalline. Butler is 180 pounds, and the two men arrived at basically the same spot at the same time.

The laws of physics say the 211-pound receiver should have won the battle over the smaller defensive back, but Butler was just a little quicker, more determined, and more focused. That allowed him to overcome a 31-pound weight differential.

There is little doubt that if Wilson had handed the ball to Lynch or ran it himself the Seahawks would have had a much greater chance of finishing the drive and winning their second consecutive Super Bowl.

But an undrafted rookie was well-prepared and ready for the moment, and that’s why the Seahawks were deflated at the end of the game.

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Steve Silverman
Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.