Whether on YouTube or in their own minds, Patriots fans will replay Malcolm Butler’s famous interception in their minds forever. You know which one. Under 30 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX, clock ticking, Seahawks down four points but knocking on the door of a go-ahead touchdown.
Snap gets off fine, Russell Wilson drops back and lets it rip. It looked like a perfectly designed play for a fleeting moment. But there was Butler to blow it up.
No. 21 jumps Ricardo Lockette’s route and snags the football, holding strong like a statue as Lockette pinballs off him. Butler falls forward, his teammates make sure he’s down, and the celebration is on.
Three years later, Butler’s interception still stands as arguably the most iconic single play in Super Bowl history. Considering how many historic moments the Patriots have forged in their eight Super Bowl trips with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, that’s quite a striking accomplishment for a player who was an unknown, undrafted rookie at the time.
But still, Butler was not a one-play wonder in that game. In fact, his goal line interception was actually the culmination of a stunning defensive performance that helped the Patriots overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and, ultimately, save their Super Bowl.
“I Just Want To Be A Good Player”
Despite his interception getting the glory – and justifiably so – Butler impacted Super Bowl XLIX in a meaningful way on several more of his snaps. He recorded three passes defensed and three total tackles, mostly neutralizing Wilson’s attempts to attack him in coverage.
Speaking at his Thursday media availability at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., Butler explained what drove him that night and what continues to drive him to impact the game on every single snap.
“I just want to be a good player,” said Butler. “I just like to compete. I just want to prove myself to my family, to my coaches, to my teammates. I just love the game, man. I just love the game of football. I’m just a competitor.”
It’s well-known by now that Butler had a good week of practice for that game, and specifically worked on the play the Seahawks ran that led to his interception. He credited the coaches for their famous “Next Man Up” mentality and having the whole depth chart ready to go as if they’re playing every snap.
“I was making plays at practice, and practice translates to game reality,” said Butler. “So if you can do it at practice, you can do it in a game.
“You don’t know when your number is gonna be called. That’s why practice squad guys, third-string cornerbacks, fourth-string cornerbacks, backup quarterbacks … Everybody’s got to prepare like they’re starting. So once your number’s called, you’ll be ready.”
Not Just A One-Play Wonder
Butler played only 18 snaps on defense in Super Bowl XLIX, taking his first in the third quarter. Matt Patricia had seen enough of Kyle Arrington as the third cornerback. He switched Arrington out for Butler and shifted Brandon Browner’s coverage to Seahawks wideout Chris Matthews, who had come out of nowhere to toast the Patriots secondary to that point. Butler mostly drew Jermaine Kearse.
He first made his presence felt when he tackled Marshawn Lynch, of all people. After the Patriots had struggled to wrap Beast Mode up for much of the evening, in came the rookie to show the first flash of his strong tackling ability for an undersized cornerback. He held Lynch to just two yards.
On the next play, Butler wrapped up Kearse for just a six-yard catch. He kept himself in position well to make the play. And on the next play after that, Butler broke up a deep pass intended for Kearse on third-and-3. Butler again stuck with Kearse in his coverage and got enough of his arm in the way to disrupt the catch.
Had the pass been completed, the Seahawks would have had a first-and-10 at about the Patriots’ 20-yard line with a real chance to add minimum three points to their 24-14 lead at the time. Because of everything that happened afterward, Butler’s pass breakup has been criminally underplayed in the past three years.
After that stop, the defense really started to come together. A three-and-out followed by a Danny Amendola touchdown had the Seahawks up only three. And on the ensuing Seattle drive, Butler disrupted Lockette on a first-and-10 throw. He came close to committing pass interference at the tail end of the play, but he got just enough jam on Lockette at the line to slow him down.
After Tom Brady’s second touchdown drive of the fourth quarter, Butler really started to turn heads. But of course, it looked very bad for a time. Thirty-one yards to Marshawn Lynch set them up at midfield, but Butler popped up on the very next play to slow their momentum with another breakup on Kearse. This time, he made a leaping block on what could’ve been a sure catch for 20-plus yards.
Yet three snaps later, it appeared that the Patriots’ hearts would be ripped out for the third straight Super Bowl. Kearse made what could have gone down as an even more shocking circus catch than David Tyree’s in the fourth quarter of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII win over the Patriots.
But the catch wasn’t Butler’s fault. In fact, he made yet another impressive breakup. It simply led to an incredible series of bounces and the ball ended up in Kearse’s hands. The look on Kurt Warner’s face off to the left tells the story:
Butler still showed good awareness to stay with Kearse and push him out of bounds on the play to prevent a possible touchdown. And two plays later, you-know-what happened.
While the 2017 version of Butler hasn’t quite reached the heights of his first three seasons, that doesn’t mean he’s stopped battling. He hasn’t lost his competitive edge, which has always been his hallmark. And the impending free agent apparently hopes that will keep him in New England long-term.
Just over three years after the play of his life, Butler has a chance to erase the dips in his performance that have cropped up at times. Much like his teammate Stephon Gilmore did in the AFC Championship Game. But even one down year can’t undo the relentlessness that Butler brought in Super Bowl XLIX. On every single snap he played.
He just wants to be a good player. He’s certainly been that over the course of his career, and not for just one play.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.