By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- In terms of purely viewing the Patriots from a team-need perspective, the signing of free-agent cornerback Malcolm Butler is not surprising in the least.
Yet in terms of ... quite literally everything else, the Foxboro reunion ranks among the most surprising and unlikely moments of the entire Bill Belichick era.
Even for a team that constantly surprises everybody, this one was hard to imagine.
That stems, of course, from the infamous night of Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. It was a night when, save for a single snap on special teams, Butler spent the entire game as a spectator, banished to Belichick's doghouse and forced to watch as Nick Foles and the Eagles carved up the Patriots' secondary over the course of four hours. That was largely the No. 1 reason -- and No. 2 ... and No. 3 -- that the Patriots lost that game, as Tom Brady's Super Bowl-record 505 passing yards weren't enough for New England.
(Quick aside: Anyone who says that Butler playing would not have changed the outcome of the game is, quite simply, wrong. Not only did the benching of Butler -- who played 97.8 percent of the team's defensive snaps all year and 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps through the first two playoff games that year -- put unqualified backups like Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards on the field, but it also took players like Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe out of their normal roles. The entire defense was disrupted. The Patriots didn't need Butler to be a shutdown elite cornerback that night; they merely needed him to make a couple of tackles and play decently. This aside was not quick. Management sends its apologies.)
The mystery surrounding Butler's benching has always lingered. Some fantastical theories emerged, but a rock-solid answer never materialized. The actual explanation may be much more boring than initially imagined.
Nevertheless, the benching took place, Butler told Mike Reiss "they gave up on me," and the Butler era ended forever in New England. Or so we thought.
Now, both Butler and the Patriots appear to be a little desperate. Butler likely doesn't have much of a market, after he retired and missed all of last season. Teams aren't typically champing at the bit to sign a 32-year-old corner coming off a missed season.
But the Patriots are in a bit of a pickle at the cornerback spot, having lost Stephon Gilmore (trade) and J.C. Jackson (free agency) in the span of six months. With Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones sitting atop the depth chart, the Patriots absolutely needed someone with more experience and ability than the likes of Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade to round out the cornerbacks room.
That's the combination of events that can lead to a signing like this. Still, it's surprising to see a moment as massive as the one in Super Bowl LII being brushed aside in the name of doing business.
Butler obviously made his mark in football history by making one of the most spectacular plays of all time, with his goal-line interception of Russell Wilson -- a pick that changed the courses of two franchises, giving rise to a new Patriots dynasty and short-circuiting Seattle's expected run of multiple championships. He was also an unmitigated Patriots success story, going from an undrafted and unknown rookie out of West Alabama (West Alabama?!) to a Super Bowl hero in a span of just 10 months. And he wasn't a one-hit wonder, either, going on to cover top receivers in huge games and winning another Super Bowl two years later against the Falcons.
But his absence in the Super Bowl three years later -- an absence no doubt demanded by Belichick -- forever changed the scope of Butler's Patriots career in New England. Both sides overcoming that elephant in the room is nothing short of remarkable.
In a way, it can serve as a bit of a redemption arc for both Butler and Belichick. There's always the chance that Butler doesn't make the team at the end of camp. This is, after all, the NFL. But there's also a chance for an unscripted, unexpected, happy ending to the story of Malcolm Butler and the Patriots. That's not an outcome that anybody ever saw coming -- not even in New England, where we're accustomed to expecting the unexpected.
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