ORLANDO, Fla. — It's the coaching decision that will never die among some Patriots faithful, at least as long as Bill Belichick declines to give a full accounting of his decision not to let Malcolm Butler play a snap of defense in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles.
At least for now, it seems like we're going to have to move onto the scoreboard phase of this. And the NFL's annual meeting has given us a great chance, now that the dust has settled on free agency, to realize this:
Either the Titans or Patriots likely made a huge mistake when it comes to Malcolm Butler.
It has to boil down to that, doesn't it?
On one side, you have the Titans, who gave a five-year, $60-million contract (basically a two-year, $24-million deal with three annual club options after that) to a player whose former team didn't think he was, a) was good enough to start in Super Bowl LII, and b) good enough to come off the bench to replace the immortal Jordan Richards or Johnson Bademosi as the Eagles were on their way to putting up 41 points, converting 66.7 percent of third and fourth downs, and 538 total yards.
Think about that.
One team gave a player $24 million immediately after his former team wouldn't even put him on the field in the Super Bowl. The most important game of the season.
On the other side of the coin, the Patriots wouldn't let Butler — a player another team gave $24 million at the onset of free agency — on the field as a sixth Super Bowl win slipped away.
None of this makes any sense. The situation seems preposterous.
Now, consider this: The Titans' braintrust is comprised of two people -- general manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel -- who spent a combined 20 years either working or playing for Belichick and the Patriots.
It's like we've entered some weird pigskin-themed episode of the Twilight Zone.
If the Titans had some sort of inside information on the Butler situation, they weren't saying in Orlando.
"The one thing I don't deal with is the numbers or the contracts," Vrabel said when asked about Butler. "I evaluate players and I find guys that can help our team. You try to bring as many guys as you can that can help your team, that are great teammates and competitive."
And, after being benched by his team in the Super Bowl, that's Butler?
"You'd have to ask Bill. I didn't make the decision ... I watched the game like the rest of us," Vrabel said Tuesday. "If you want to talk to Bill about Malcolm and his career there, that'd be great. Going forward, I'm excited for the players we've added here in the offseason."
I asked Vrabel if they did their due diligence on Butler, and he nodded.
"We're excited to have Malcolm," he said.
"I didn't ask Bill why he didn't play him. I don't think anybody else knows why he did or didn't play, other than the head coach. I don't know. I didn't ask Bill. That's not something we went through. ... We felt like we knew Malcolm well enough, the people that we trusted and talked to about his character, about his work ethic, about the type of teammate that he was. We're excited to have him."
If this were any other player or offseason, we'd be talking about how Belichick almost always knows when to pay players and when to walk away.
The Patriots brought Butler in as an undrafted free agent, coached him up and groomed him for four years to the point that he was a second-team All-Pro in 2016.
But when it came time to pay Butler, Belichick wouldn't do it. He usually has his reasons for doing that. Yet no one is talking about that when it comes to Butler, because this situation and player does feel different.
Is it? That's the $24 million question.
The last time the Patriots made a decision on this level — and it was different because of the position — with old friends was when Belichick traded Matt Cassel and Vrabel to the Chiefs and former lieutenant Scott Pioli for a second-round pick in 2009. Many in New England initially thought the deal was an error by Belichick, especially when Cassel received a contract that paid him $40.5 million in the first three years.
We all know how that one turned out.
Vrabel said he and Robinson talked to people they "trusted" about Butler's character, work ethic and the type of teammate he was.
Obviously, Titans cornerback Logan Ryan would be one resource. He's still close to many of his former Patriots teammates in the secondary, and likely has the backstory from the player's side. Many of Robinson's former teammates in the scouting department are still there: Nick Caserio, Monti Ossenfort, DuJuan Daniels, Matt Groh, Patrick Stewart, Steve Cargile, among others. And one of Vrabel's best friends continues to be Tom Brady, who just so happens to be a big fan of Butler's on Instagram in the wake of the Super Bowl (I didn't put much into this until Martellus Bennett revealed he communicates often with Brady via direct message on Instagram — what a world).
Add up all those connections, and it sure seems like a lot of Patriots people could have lined up to back Butler. Really, there's no way the Titans give him that type money without that, unless the Titans made a grievous error with a lack of due diligence.
"We talked (internally) about character," Vrabel said. "We talked about him as a person, as a teammate. But there are decisions coaches make and people make for their team ... that was a Patriot decision ... Malcolm's a Titan now."
Yes, he is. And how he performs as a Titan will either be an indictment on the Patriots for their decision in the Super Bowl, or Tennessee for paying a player Belichick wouldn't even send on the field in the game the entire Patriots organization is geared to win.
Start your scoreboard.