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Malcolm Butler mystery still unsolved; Titans couldn't care less

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NASHVILLE -- Malcolm Butler was strolling through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport a couple of months ago when he noticed another traveler pointing his way, and the Tennessee Titans' newly minted cornerback immediately ran for cover.

Having just completed a tiring week of offseason training activities, Butler had little patience for what he suspected was coming: Sure enough, after ducking into an airport bathroom, entering a stall and locking the door behind him, Butler heard a voice belonging to the man who'd recognized him as the former New England Patriots standout fresh off one of history's most mysterious and shocking Super Bowl snubs.

"Hey, Butler, why didn't you play in the Super Bowl?"

Not surprisingly, the proud defender's first instinct was to flush.

"Everywhere I go, people ask me why I didn't play in the Super Bowl and stuff like that," Butler said in an interview with NFL.com following last Thursday's training camp practice. "Bar, restaurant, bathroom -- it doesn't even matter. They ask me why I didn't play and say, 'I'm sorry ...' I don't want to hear that s---!

"It's over with. I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me -- none of that. I'm gassed up and I'm ready to play."

Butler isn't lying: His spirited and prolific performances on the practice field were a staple of the Titans' offseason, and he was the star of the opening week of rookie coach Mike Vrabel's first training camp. In the wake of the five-year, $61 million contract he signed shortly after the start of free agency this past March, Butler has already convinced his new teammates -- and bosses -- that they made the right move.

"I'm not gonna lie," said Jurrell Casey, Tennessee's three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, "when he got here, I was like, He was good with the Patriots, but let's see what he's got. We gave him a lot of money ... But the dude has been doing great things out on the field since he got here, and trust me, he's earning every dollar of it."

Vrabel echoed that sentiment at a team meeting on the first night of training camp, pulling up a video clip from the early stages of that morning's camp-opening practice: After lining up in a 1-on-1 drill opposite second-year wideout Corey Davis, the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Butler closed on a crisp pass from Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota that initially landed in the target's hands. As Davis prepared to pull the ball in toward his body, Butler, who was shoulder-to-shoulder with the receiver, ripped it away and repossessed it -- then punted it downfield as a point of emphasis.

As Vrabel recalled while reclining in his office chair before practice last Wednesday morning and displaying the play in question on a computer screen: "Trust me, this was one of many. I showed this at the meeting and told our team, 'You always wonder, when you bring in a big-time free agent and give him a bunch of money, about them not being the right fit, or that things won't go well. And when you're in that position as a player, you show them they made the right decision by how you play, and how you practice. Well, this is how Malcolm plays, and it's been a big sigh of relief. We got the guy we wanted. He fits. And he's worth the money.' "

Yet even as Butler emphatically endeavors to push the narrative forward, he remains dogged by a football-watching public's lingering obsession with his conspicuous absence from New England's Super Bowl LII defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles in February. The intrigue is understandable: After all, Butler -- the hero of New England's stunning Super Bowl XLIX victory over the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie, a former Pro Bowl performer who'd led the Pats in defensive snaps during the regular season -- stood on the sidelines for all but a single special-teams play of a game in which Philly's backup quarterback, Nick Foles, torched the New England secondary for 373 yards in a 41-33 triumph.

Since then, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has consistently declined to offer an explanation for his bizarre decision to make Butler one of the team's 46 active players but not to use him, playing seven other defensive backs in a futile attempt to stop the Eagles. The benching appeared to rattle numerous New England players, and shortly before the game, television cameras showed Butler crying on the sidelines during the national anthem.

"It was tough to see," admitted Titans cornerback Logan Ryan, a former Patriots teammate and close friend of Butler's. "I had talked to Malcolm before the game and kind of knew a little bit going in. I just knew he wasn't gonna start; I didn't know he wasn't gonna play.

"One thing about them -- they're always gonna do what they think is best for that given game. I know Bill. He wouldn't be the greatest coach of all time by not being right most of the time. (But) the whole defense didn't play well. It didn't work out. At the end of the day, he didn't play. I wasn't there. I can't tell you (why)."

If Butler knows why, he still isn't saying, other than to decry rumors that he triggered the move by missing curfew and/or violating team rules. After the game, Butler told ESPN's Mike Reiss, "They gave up on me. F---. 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."

The following day, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport cited "several factors" as having influenced Belichick's decision, including an illness that caused Butler to arrive in Minneapolis a day later than his teammates, a rough week of practice and "a small or minor violation of team rules that happened earlier in the week ... and some attitudes, frustrations, as well."

Butler denies that he violated team rules and says no one from the Titans organization even asked him about the Super Bowl benching. Did that surprise him?

"Um, yeah," he said, "but not really, 'cause there's nothing to talk about. They came strong. And they weren't playing the bluff, business game. That made me feel very good about myself, very good about the organization. I'm not about playing games; I'm straight up and down. I mean, they must have done their research or something. ... Nobody's just gonna sign anybody (to that kind of deal)."

Butler definitely has a point. Among the teams that made plays for him in free agency were the Detroit Lions (whose new head coach, Matt Patricia, was the Patriots' defensive coordinator through Super Bowl LII) and Houston Texans (whose head coach, Bill O'Brien, is a former Patriots assistant who still has strong relationships with many in the organization). Presumably, if Butler had done something that upsetting to provoke his benching, each coach would have had reservations about making that kind of financial commitment.

The same applies to the Titans, whose general manager, Jon Robinson, was a former Patriots college scouting director. And Vrabel, who was O'Brien's defensive coordinator in Houston before getting the Tennessee job in January, spent eight of his 14 playing years with New England (winning three Super Bowls) and has remained on good terms with Belichick, among others in the organization.

"I may know a person up there or two," Vrabel said, smiling. "I think the body of work, and (what I heard from) the people I had the conversation with, pretty much made it an easy decision."

Thus, presumably, Vrabel was satisfied with the explanations he received about Butler's Super Bowl benching?

"I would say that's probably pretty accurate," he replied.

There's a pretty decent chance that at least one of Vrabel's friends and former Pats teammates vouched for the cornerback -- a player who happens to rank with the greatest in NFL history. After Butler signed with the Titans and posted a farewell message on his Instagram feed (in which he denied having "attended any concert, missed curfew, or participated any of the ridiculous activities being reported"), Pats quarterback Tom Brady liked the post and commented, "Love you Malcolm. You are an incredible player and teammate and friend. Always!!!!!!"

Asked if such statements of support made him feel good, Butler replied, "Most definitely. ... If you don't say anything, somebody's gonna say something for you. ... Like (reports in) the media, spreading bad rumors. All that kinda stuff. My teammates know I'm a good person. Hell, the Tennessee Titans know I'm a good person, and a good player."

Said Ryan: "Malcolm is one of my favorite teammates I've ever played with, period. He's always been a great teammate. There's nothing bad about the guy. He's here, and I wouldn't recommend anybody who was bad. And he's a hell of a player."

Robinson, the team's third-year GM, said Butler's value to the Titans goes beyond mere playing ability.

"We did our research," Robinson said. "We talked to as many people as we possibly could, and we felt comfortable with it. Then, the day after he signs, I look out my window, and he's running sprints on the practice field. So his commitment to football, in our eyes, has been tremendous, and he's been a good teammate. He's scrappy, competitive and tough, and he wants to be tested. He wants you to throw at him, 'cause he's confident in his ability."

Butler's intensely competitive nature was what propelled him to stardom in the first place. An undrafted free agent from West Alabama, Butler fought his way onto the Patriots' roster and ended his rookie season with a Super Bowl-saving, goal-line interception of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. He parlayed that indelible moment into a starting job and, in his second NFL season, earned a Pro Bowl selection.

"All I needed was one shot," Butler said. "All I needed was one opportunity. I promised that a long time ago. But at the end of the day, if I had a shot or not, I was gonna be this way. ... Playing pickup basketball, flag football. I'm just being me. I like to compete, I like to win as a team and individually. So, that's just me."

Even as Butler developed into a top-flight corner, there were hiccups along the way. In May of 2015, a little more than three months after his Super Bowl XLIX heroics, Butler, thanks to a canceled flight, showed up late to the Patriots' first OTA session. Belichick responded by telling Butler not to show up for the team's next eight OTA practices, essentially penalizing a player for showing up late to a voluntary workout by banning him from subsequent voluntary activities.

"It was what it was," Butler recalled, "but I learned from that, and I do my best now to make sure it doesn't happen again. You've gotta be where you're supposed to be."

Following the 2016 season, the Patriots placed a first-round tender (one year, $3.91 million) on Butler, who paid a visit to the New Orleans Saints but did not sign an offer sheet. Butler later accepted New England's terms, though the Pats' signing of free agent Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal created an obvious financial disparity between the team's top two cornerbacks, and CSN New England reported that Butler was "frustrated" by the situation. There was talk that the Saints might trade for Butler, but he ended up spending a fourth season in New England.

Now, he's in a place where he feels wanted -- and is highly motivated to move past his Super Bowl LII nightmare in a resounding and resonant manner.

"You always wonder what went down," Casey said. "Obviously, there were certain things that went down in that building. The Eagles went out and attacked their defense like there was no tomorrow, and he didn't get in the game. I don't know why, but I'm just thankful he's a Tennessee Titan.

"If a coach did something to you like that, especially in a big moment, you'd better have some pride. He's motivated through the roof."

Adoree' Jackson, the Titans' second-year cornerback, said Butler's Super Bowl snub "added extra fuel to the fire. But he didn't have to get benched in the Super Bowl to be motivated. He would have still come here with that edge. It was pretty crazy to see a guy like Malcolm on the sideline. But now he's on our sideline, and I'm glad to have him."

Said Ryan: "He's definitely driven, for whatever reasons. Maybe because he was undrafted. Maybe 'cause he was benched. Maybe 'cause he came from nothing ... but whatever his reasons, one thing you don't have to worry about is him being driven. He's brought a lot of energy.

"I know one thing [Vrabel] said before the first (training camp) practice at 9:30 a.m.: 'No matter if you're a big-money free agent or undrafted, one thing about this league is, people don't care how you got here and how much you make.' I think Malcolm, that day, was out to prove he was worth how much we paid him."

In this case, the proof was in the punting: After snatching the ball out of Davis' hands and sending it skyward, Butler elevated practice to another level of intensity.

"(I was) setting a tone for the team, and setting a tone for myself," Butler said. "I just wanted to let everybody know I'm real about football. That's what I love to do, and I love to compete. And I know it was (against) my teammates, and it was kind of disrespectful.

"Sometimes, that's how you gotta be. At the end of the day, they know that I'm on their side. And I want to better myself and make them better also."

Evidently, it worked.

"The crazy thing is," Ryan said, "the offense had their best day the next day, and Corey Davis and Marcus were the best players on the field."

Said Butler: "Yeah, they came back and lit me up, man. They came back with all kinds of moves. I promise I ain't kicking no more balls."

Aside from that small concession, Butler has no intention of backing off. Asked for his reaction to being singled out and lauded by Vrabel at the team meeting early in training camp, Butler replied, "S---, I want to make another play, and make him say it again."

In other words, that's one topic of conversation Butler wouldn't try to avoid, even if there were an airport bathroom stall in the immediate vicinity.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter at @MikeSilver

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