— The Sports Xchange —
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s tough to decide what was more surprising in Super Bowl LII Sunday night in Minneapolis, that the favored, experienced, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots dynasty fell to the backup-led Eagles 41-33 or that the loss came with former Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler watching from the sideline, failing to play a single snap on defense as Nick Foles torched the New England secondary for 60 minutes.
Brady led an offense that churned out a Super Bowl-record 613 yards and 33 points, becoming the first team ever – regular season or postseason — to lose with 600-plus yards of offense as well as the highest-scoring loser in Super Bowl history.
But it was the backup Foles who earned MVP honors by throwing three touchdown passes and catching another on a goal-line gadget play.
New England never punted, but a game filled with big plays for both offenses swung in the final minutes on a Brandon Graham strip-sack of Brady that was recovered by teammate Derek Barnett to set up a 46-yard field goal that pushed Philly’s lead to eight points with just more than a minute to play.
“I’m really proud of the way our team competed tonight. I’m proud of the way our players and coaches competed for 60 minutes. It just wasn’t quite enough,” head coach Bill Belichick said to open his postgame press conference. “We weren’t able to perform at our best. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job coaching. Disappointing, but I’m proud of the way our team competed. These guys are champions, champions of the AFC. They earned that. We just came up a little bit short. Tough, tough way to end. There’s a lot of really good things that happened this season, but that’s what this game’s about.”
As for Butler’s status, Belichick declared that it was not for disciplinary reasons that the cornerback remained on the sideline despite New England’s troubles in pass defense. He agreed with a reporter’s description of Butler’s absence being due to “football reasons.”
“We put the best players out there and the game plan out there because we thought it’d be the best to win,” Belichick concluded.
That game plan included Eric Rowe starting at cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore, something the usual third corner/backup didn’t learn until kickoff. It included plenty of packages with four safeties on the field, with an overmatched Jordan Richards joining the usual trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duran Harmon. It also included Johnson Bademosi getting more reps than he’s been used to over the second half of the season.
It didn’t work.
Butler, the former Super Bowl hero who clinched a title for New England with his interception of Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX and is set to hit free agency this spring, declined to speak with reporters in the losing locker room, but did vent a bit when caught up to by ESPN as he walked to Patriots team buses.
“They gave up on me. F—,” Butler told ESPN. “It is what it is. I don’t know what it was. I guess I wasn’t playing good or they didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know. But I could have changed that game.”
He never got that chance and likely has played his last game as a Patriot as New England lost its chance to defend its title and win a third in four years for the second time in Belichick’s tenure.
It was a surprising loss marked by one of the most curious coaching decisions of Belichick’s Hall of Fame career.
It was a game and a game plan from Belichick that will be debated and dissected for quite some time.
During a Monday morning conference call with the New England media, barely 12 hours after the loss, Belichick did little to add context to the Butler benching.
“I appreciate the question, but it would be a much longer discussion,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of things that go into that. In the end, the final decision is what I said it was.
“I respect Malcolm’s competitiveness, and I’m sure that he felt like he could have helped,” Belichick added later. “I’m sure other players felt the same way. In the end, we have to make the decisions that we feel are best for the football team, and that’s what we did, that’s what I did.”
Butler was a no-show at the opening media session of Super Bowl week, and the team said it was because of illness. Other reports of off-field issues surfaced, but Belichick claimed it was not a disciplinary move.
–Just hours after his defense gave up 41 points and 538 total yards in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was officially announced as the new head coach of the Lions.
The Patriots issued a statement through the Detroit organization that read, in part: “I can’t express enough appreciation to the entire New England Patriots franchise, particularly Robert and Jonathan Kraft and their entire family. I will truly cherish these last 14 years as a member of this incredible organization.
“I’d like to express my appreciation and thanks to Bill Belichick. He’s been a remarkable mentor to me, not only as a football coach but also as a man and as a friend. I have learned immensely from his detailed leadership approach to the game, which has certainly shaped me into the football coach that I am today. Quite simply, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with, who I believe, is the greatest coach in NFL history.
“Now I turn all of my attention to the Lions. I look forward to the next chapter of my career in Detroit.”
The void at coordinator in New England is likely to be filled quickly. Many had presumed that linebackers coach Brian Flores, who actually interviewed for the Cardinals head coaching vacancy in January, would be promoted swiftly to defensive coordinator. But there have also been reports out of Ohio State that Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, the former Rutgers and Buccaneers head coach, could be returning to the NFL to join Belichick’s staff. Schiano could come aboard as assistant head coach, with Flores taking the title of defensive coordinator, or could land the coordinator role himself leaving Flores’ future uncertain.
–Tight end Rob Gronkowski had a huge Super Bowl LII performance, returning from the concussion that sidelined him for the second half of the AFC title game to catch a team-high nine passes for 116 yards and a pair of second-half touchdowns against the Eagles.
The performance came a few hours after the popular internet rumor site Pro Football Talk sent out a tweet speculating that the 28-year-old oft-injured All-Pro might be considering retirement.
Asked about the report and his future, Gronkowski seemed a bit stunned that the topic was broached in the immediacy of the Super Bowl loss.
“I don’t know how you heard that,” Gronkowski said when asked about the possibility of pondering retirement. “I’m definitely going to look at my future. We’ll sit down in the next couple of weeks and see where I’m at.
“I’m not ready for these types of questions right now.”
A few hours later, on a Monday morning conference call with New England media, Belichick agreed with the last part of Gronkowski’s answer.
“At the end of every season, every person goes through somewhat of a process at the end of the season and then the following season,” Belichick said. “I think everyone that is involved in a NFL season, you get pretty drained especially after a season like this. (You) go through the end of the year process. The following year is the following year. It’s the same for everybody.
“I certainly can’t speak for anybody else. You’d have to ask any individual for every situation, but I would say five minutes after the game, or the day after the game is not really the time to make those decisions.”
Gronkowski is coming off an All-Pro season in which he led the Patriots with 69 catches, 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns. Thanks to a contract that was restructured with incentives last summer, he was essentially able to double his salary to more than $10 million this season. He’s under contract through 2019, with a salary of $8 million for next season.
REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES
–PASSING OFFENSE: A – Though it wasn’t enough in the end, Tom Brady put up huge Super Bowl numbers once again by completing 28-of-48 passes for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 115.4 rating. Rob Gronkowski (116 yards, two touchdowns), Danny Amendola (152) and Chis Hogan (128, one touchdown) all topped 100 yards, each with a reception longer than 25 yards. The lone black mark for the passing attack was a fourth-quarter strip sack by Brandon Graham recovered by Philly that closed the door on any realistic comeback hopes for New England.
–RUSHING OFFENSE: A – Facing the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense, Dion Lewis and the rest of the Patriots backs balanced out the offensive attack against Philly. As a team New England ran it 22 times for 113 yards (5.1 average). Super Bowl LI hero James White led the way with 45 yards on his seven attempts, including a 26-yard touchdown, while Lewis had 39 yards on his nine rushes. The ground game was secondary to a borderline unstoppable passing attack, but it was productive in limited chances.
–PASS DEFENSE: F – New England couldn’t get off the field on third down – the Eagles converted 10-of-16 chances – and most of that was due to an abysmal night in coverage. The Patriots used four safeties at times and left Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler on the bench, allowing Nick Foles to complete 28-of-43 passes for 373 yards with three touchdowns and one deflected interception for a 106.1 passer rating. Foles also caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton on a trick play on the goal line. Foles had five pass plays longer than 20 yards, but also efficiently hit the shorter completions to move the chains with regularity against an almost defenseless Patriots pass defense. The pass rush didn’t help much, barely getting near Foles and never recording a sack.
–RUSH DEFENSE: F – Though the pass defense will get the bulk of the blame for Super Bowl failure, the run defense wasn’t much better in allowing Philly to churn out 164 yards on 27 carries for a (6.1 average). Former Patriot LeGarrette Blount led the way with 90 yards on 14 attempts with one touchdown, including a 36-yard scamper. Jay Ajayi added nine carries for 57 yards, including a 26-yarder. A porous Patriots run defense that had played better in recent contests reverted to its midseason struggled on Super Sunday.
–SPECIAL TEAMS: D -New England’s generally solid specialists struggled. Long snapper Joe Cardona’s errant snap led to a missed 26-yard field goal in the second quarter. Stephen Gostkowski also missed an extra point for the second straight Super Bowl. Kickoff coverage was lacking with Philly starting five possessions at or beyond the 25. New England’s kickoff return group did little, including a poorly executed trick, reverse return late the fourth quarter that left New England’s comeback drive to start backed up at its own 9. Tough evening overall in the third phase.
COACHING: D – For reasons that are not yet clear, Bill Belichick benched former Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler for the biggest game of the year. Belichick continues to say it was a “coach’s decision” related to football, if so it was a terrible one as the Eagles threw the ball at will. Matt Patricia deserves some of the blame for some curious packages in the back end that included a fourth safety in Jordan Richards, who struggled mightily. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels led a unit that put up big numbers but there were a couple curious play-calls along the way, including a trick play throwback to Tom Brady on a third-and-5 from the Philly 35 in the second quarter. The Patriots clearly were beaten in matchups on the field, but also took the loss on the sidelines as well as Doug Pederson and Co. pulled all the right strings.