Patriots

Bedard’s Breakdown: Malcolm Butler’s role vs. Saints wasn’t about size, so what’s going on?

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(Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

I’ve heard all the excuses about why Malcolm Butler wouldn’t start against the Saints, with the leading reason being (and I initially gave credence to this on Sunday until someone slapped me) the Saints have a lot of big receivers and Butler (5-foot-11) is smaller than both Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe (both 6-foot-1).

Yeah, that was wrong. What we’re looking at here right now (injuries could change things, and have in the past), is a good old-fashioned Bill Belichick phase-out of Butler.

Let me explain.

Sure, it’s true New Orleans has, in descending order of effectiveness, some tall receivers: Michael Thomas (6-foot-3), Brandon Coleman (6-foot-6), and then Ted Ginn (5-foot-11 but plays bigger with long arms and leaping ability) and Tommylee Lewis (5-foot-7). Let’s put aside the fact, for now, that only Thomas is decent and go with the height theory.

On the first play of the game, the Saints trotted out Thomas and Coleman. Gilmore lined up opposite Coleman, and Rowe was across from Thomas. So far, so good.

On the next play, Lewis entered the game. If the Patriots were truly playing matchups by size, Butler would have taken Lewis. He didn’t. Gilmore stayed on Coleman, Rowe had Lewis and Butler matched up with Thomas.

That’s pretty much the end of the discussion, but if you needed more evidence, here is a chart for the 15 first-half snaps when the trio of cornerbacks were on the field together. Again, if it was a size thing, you’d expect to see Butler on Ginn and Lewis most of the time. Instead, he usually went against Thomas (66.7 percent).

Butler wouldn’t speak after the game (wonder why?), but Rowe did say that the cornerbacks just played by position, there weren’t specific matchups with receivers. Those numbers bear that out, and so does the film. With all three in the game and when the Saints had receivers spread across the field, Butler played right corner, Gilmore left, and Rowe played inside.

That’s what you call a reduced role for Butler. The guy goes from playing 99 percent of the snaps the two previous seasons to 75 percent (it would have been less had Rowe not gotten hurt and limited to 52 percent) just because the coaches want to get a closer look at other players (another theory)? No, that doesn’t happen. If Butler is clearly the best player in the coaches eyes (or, they just gave him $13 million a season in Gilmore’s case), he’s starting and playing a majority of the snaps. The Patriots would only reduce Butler’s role if they were starting to believe Rowe was the better player. And, now, with Jonathan Jones’ continued ascension, how long before they think the team would better off without Butler altogether and look to trade him before the Oct. 31 deadline? As always, those things depend on the health of the team, and we’re not even sure if Rowe is healthy.

The better question is, why are the Patriots doing this to Butler, who has basically been the model player his three-plus seasons in New England?