Saturday, November 21, 2015

Butler's Physical Play, Steady Improvement Demanding Respect

If anyone had questions about whether Malcolm Butler is a true number one cornerback, last Sunday evening's performance against Odell Beckham and the New York Giants should have answered them with a resounding "yes"...

In fact, anyone who has had any criticism at all of the sophomore phenom out of West Alabama University has had to at least soften their stance on the kid that linebacker Jamie Collins has appropriately dubbed "Strap" - a respectful moniker that suggests Butler's penchant for strapping down receivers.

In Butler's first season as a starter, Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick has not been shy about exposing his second-greatest project to the best pass catcher the opposition has to offer (Tom Brady will always be the "Project" that Belichick is best known for developing)  - and the results have not always been pretty, but his improvement has been steady and he's earning the respect of his foe, no small task for a small school cat who is three years older than a typical second year guy.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know of his heroics in the Super Bowl - but the humble Butler shook off any notion of being part of Super Bowl lore, suggesting that he didn't want his football legacy tied solely to that, rather, that his legacy would begin with his performance in the Super Bowl and evolve into whatever his destiny is.

The man who had enough respect for the history of the game that he wept openly as his name was being carved into the stone tablets of football legend, Butler accepted the key to his hometown and a wicked nice truck from quarterback Tom Brady, but once the trophy was delivered and the euphoria over a world championship mellowed into fond recollection, Butler was just a dude that played well on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, and was still essentially a first-year player with a limited sample size for a resume.

Many in the media and the Patriots' fan base questioned head ball coach Bill Belichick for not going after a top corner in the draft or free agency, instead bringing in the likes of oft-burned Bradley Fletcher and former falcon Robert McClain to offer a little resistance to Butler, but he outplayed everyone in training camp to earn the top billing.

And good thing, too, as McClain was grabbier than a teenager on a first date and Fletcher couldn't cover a body at the morgue, so the Patriots turned to former 49er and Raider Tarell Brown along with a myriad of rookies to round out their depth chart in camp, hoping that one of them would rise up and grasp the corner opposite Butler...

...but Brown hit the skids with a chronic foot injury and rookie seventh round pick Daryll Roberts broke a bone in his wrist, leaving just Butler and third-year nickle corner Logan Ryan on the outside, while having no choice but to hand the nickle job to undrafted rookie Justin Coleman, then picked up inconsistent big corner Rashaan Melvin from the Ravens to fill out the depth chart.

Of course, where the anxiety came for the media and fans was from the Patriots allowing both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to move on, with fears of the pass defense falling from a middle of the pack unit with those two aboard to one that more resembled Swiss cheese squarely on their brains - but the rankings really haven't changed.

The why's and how's are more a matter of the safety corps rounding into one of the top units in the NFL, loaded with versatility to support just about any game plan that Belichick could conjure.

The talisman for the three-safety "Big Nickle" defense is free safety Duron Harmon growing into the centerfielder's job, freeing up fellow blue-liner Devin McCourty to be the Big Nickle - or rover, if you will - rotating anywhere that needs attention on the second or third levels, which allows strong safety Patrick Chung to support the box in a like manner, covering tight ends while he's at it.

Ryan has certainly been a beneficiary of the philosophy, as Harmon increasingly tends to play strong side to Ryan's assignment, and sometimes with McCourty reducing down to take the slot. It's a plan that has been in place for a few years now, as Belichick's early round "reaches" in the defensive backfield needed only experience in his system with each other to properly jell...

...but what is making all of this easier - in fact, what is making it possible at all - is Butler's penchant for jumping in the receiver's hip pocket and staying there through the route progression. From the very beginning of the season, Belichick has left Butler on an island with the opposition's top receiving target, and while it has been trying at times, the trial-by-fire approach is starting to pay off.

Butler is a hockey player in football gear. He loves the physical play and seeing him mix it up with a receiver is more commonplace than with just about any other corner out there, the latest example being last Sunday as he stood toe-to-toe with New York Giants' star receiver Odell Beckham, each punking the other after the play, an extension of the fist fight that occurred as the two scrapped down the field.

That kind of physical play has gotten many an average cornerback in deep dutch with the refs and with their coaches, and Butler is no exception - but the flags are just another learning tool for him to incorporate into his body of work and, sooner rather than later, he will have earned the respect of the refs and the flags will become fewer and further between.

Because respect is the only currency that means anything on the playing field. It doesn't matter how much money your contract is worth, how long you've been in the league or what you feel that you deserve, either you earn the respect of your opponent and the officials or you don't - and if you don't, the flags continue to fly and the opposing quarterback continues to bait you...

...and while the opposing quarterbacks still pick on Butler, that can be chalked up to his thus-far shallow body of work, but he's gotten the attention of Beckham and the national press is starting to chime in, so it's only a matter of time before Butler is known more for building upon his epic start than the start itself.

And that was a tough act to follow.

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