Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
February 1, 2015
The Patriots finally won their fourth Super Bowl, thanks to an MVP performance from Tom Brady, perhaps the best coaching performance of Bill Belichick’s career, and a stunning play from a guy America had never heard of
He came from nowhere. Malcolm Butler, New England’s rookie defensive back, was an undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama. Nothing odd about that; the Patriots coveted unrefined diamonds. Take wide receiver Julian Edelman, whose three-yard touchdown catch gave New England a 28–24 lead over the Seattle Seahawks with just 2:02 left in Super Bowl XLIX. Edelman was a seventh-round pick from noted football factory Kent State. And the guy who threw Edelman the go-ahead TD was the most famous sixth-round draft choice in NFL history.
But for Edelman and Tom Brady the transition from nobodies to somebodies was gradual. Fifty-nine minutes into Super Bowl XLIX, Malcolm Butler was still anonymous even in New England. On media day no one chased him—not with Rob Gronkowski on one side and “Beast Mode,” Marshawn Lynch on the other. Even among the defensive backs Butler was obscure. The game featured two shutdown corners: Richard Sherman, leader of Seattle’s Legion of Boom, and New England’s Darrelle Revis.
So even as the decisive, cortisol-soaked moment unfolded—Seattle with a second-and-goal from the New England one-yard line, the clock hemorrhaging—Malcolm Butler was still under the radar. His primary assignment was pass defense in a situation that screamed for a run. With Lynch in the Seattle backfield, the big bodies up front would decide the game, not a 5’11”, 190-pound cornerback.
While most of America tensed in anticipation of a climactic goal-line scrum, Patriots coach Bill Belichick sensed something else. “We put our goal-line defense in probably around the same time they were sending in their multiple receiver group,” Belichick said later. He could have called timeout. That would not only have left the Patriots almost a full minute to counter a near-certain Seattle touchdown, but it would also have allowed Belichick to alter his defense. Instead, he let both the dice and the clock roll: “It just seemed like in the flow of the game that we were OK with where we were.”
Where they were was this: Coming right at Malcolm Butler was the Super Bowl’s first legitimate win-or-lose play in 24 years. And it summarized a backstory that ran almost as long.
Pete Carroll was the wrong head coach at the wrong time for the Patriots. That became apparent in just his third game. September 14, 1997. The “Tuna Bowl,” with a side of heavy hype. The Pats were hosting Bill Parcells and the Jets. Parcells had led the Patriots to the Super Bowl the previous season before deciding he’d rather shop for groceries in New Jersey. Jilted Pats fans anticipated not just a win but also a rout. It was a reasonable expectation; the Jets finished 1–15 the year before. But before succumbing on an Adam Vinatieri field goal, the Jets pushed the defending AFC champs to overtime. This was largely because the Jets defense stayed a step ahead of Carroll’s game plan.
The Jets defensive coordinator was Bill Belichick.
Back then, had you known that Carroll would soon get the boot, that Belichick would replace him, and that the two would subsequently face off in a Super Bowl, you would have assumed that there would be big-time media blather in the run-up.
And you would have been right. What you could not have foreseen was that the big-time blather would involve the air pressure readings of a dozen NFL-approved Wilson footballs. And that Carroll vs. Belichick would be an almost inconsequential plotline. Pumped and Jacked Pete—trumped by Deflategate.
Deflategate was a story with legs. Marshawn Lynch-like legs. And like its sister “scandal,” Spygate, it had legs in large part because of the way the NFL handled it. At least with Spygate, the Patriots were clearly in the wrong. They were caught recording Jets defensive signals in September 2007. Three days later the Pats acknowledged their wrongdoing and the NFL announced its punishment. That should have been that. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn’t let it go. He demanded that that Patriots turn over additional video recordings, from past seasons, which he subsequently destroyed without a clear explanation. That fueled speculation that the Patriots’ three Super Bowl wins were somehow tainted.
Goodell was miffed that Belichick had released a statement regarding Spygate instead of submitting to the Walk of Shame before the media. As Goodell later said, “He went out and stonewalled the press.”
Well, duh. Stonewalling the press was part of Belichick’s coaching philosophy. He felt no need to explain himself to the media. That’s why the press treated Spygate as a gift from the football gods—or at least the football gods’ corporate headquarters. When the Patriots were repeatedly frustrated in pursuit of a fourth championship, the media had a readymade storyline. The Pats were getting their karmic comeuppance. They lost a perfect season because Eli Manning completed a miraculous pass to David Tyree, who glued the ball to his helmet as Rodney Harrison delivered a WWE-style suplex. They lost Brady to injury for an entire season. Then they lost another Super Bowl when Eli Manning made another ridiculous completion, to Mario Manningham.
See! Haven’t won a title since Spygate….
Finally, Super Bowl XLIX gave the Patriots a chance at redemption. But the AFC championship celebration had barely ended when the rumors started. Again, the NFL leaked ambiguous information. And while reports of underinflated footballs didn’t prove the Patriots had cheated, they allowed the media to insinuate as much. This was Goodell’s gotcha moment. Belichick couldn’t make Deflategate go away simply by issuing a statement or declaring “On to Cincinnati” (as he had after a 41–14 loss at Kansas City in week four). Not at the Super Bowl, with its 5,500 press credentials and almost as many mandatory interviews. Deflategate was the ultimate distraction—and Belichick hated distractions above all else. So Belichick did what he always did when an opponent neutralized a strength. He adjusted. He called an “unscheduled media availability” before the Pats departed for Glendale, Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. And he gave the media the last thing it expected: full disclosure. He was by turns defiant and self-deprecating. He made a My Cousin Vinny reference. This was not a no-comment. This was not a claim that the Patriots had misunderstood the rules. This was a flat-out denial. It was also a challenge, to both the NFL and the media: Put up or shut up.
And a surprising thing happened. They shut up. Deflategate didn’t disappear, but it receded to the point where the Patriots could focus on the game.
And what a game. Belichick’s Patriots and Carroll’s Seahawks were studies in contrast. Unlike Brady, who couldn’t get rid of the ball fast enough, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was a read-option specialist who was most effective when he held the ball and made the defense commit. He also threw a good deep ball, while Brady’s passes rarely traveled more than ten yards. The Seahawks were loud and brash (except Lynch, who out-Belichicked Belichick in terms of reticence). They were a reflection of Carroll. After being run out of New England, Pumped and Jacked Pete refined his extroverted coaching style at Southern Cal, where celebrities like Snoop Dogg prowled the sidelines during practice. (Snoop: “Pete understands players. He’s all about letting players be themselves.”)
And so the Super Bowl became a contest of coaching jujitsu. Against the NFL’s best pass defense, Belichick all but abandoned the run (the Pats set a Super Bowl record with just one rushing first down). Brady threw a Super Bowl-record 50 passes, with a Super Bowl-record 37 completions. Brady hit Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski for second-quarter touchdowns, giving the Pats a 14–7 advantage just 36 seconds before halftime. At that point Carroll could have played it conservatively rather than risk a turnover at his own twenty. Instead, he turned his offense loose, and it devoured 80 yards in 30 seconds. The last eleven yards came on a pass from Wilson to Chris Matthews. It was Matthews’s first career touchdown and just his second career catch. The first, for 44 yards, had come five minutes earlier against Kyle Arrington, who also surrendered a big catch to Ricardo Lockette.
Matthews’s emergence forced the Patriots to make a halftime adjustment. They put the taller, more physical Brandon Browner on the 6’5” Matthews. And they substituted Malcolm Butler for Arrington.
But the Seahawks adjusted, too. They held the Patriots to just one first down in the third quarter. They picked Brady off for the second time. And, after trailing 14–7, they scored seventeen unanswered points.
Down 24–14, the Patriots remained poised and patient. They had to; this was not an offense designed to throw haymakers. They were more like Muhammad Ali, wearing the opponent down with quick jabs. And over a ten-minute span that culminated with Edelman’s go-ahead touchdown at the 2:02 mark, Brady was indeed Ali-like. He completed 13-of-15 on a pair of touchdown drives, including 8-of-8 on the last one.
But if Brady was Ali, Russell was Frazier. First-and-ten from the Patriots 38, with less than a minute and a half left. Wilson lofted a pass down the right sideline for Jermaine Kearse. Butler stayed step for step and deflected the ball. But as Kearse lay on the ground at the five-yard line, the pigskin became a pinball. It ricocheted off an assortment of body parts before Kearse corralled it.
First-and-goal at the five. The Patriots were on the brink of a third straight Super Bowl loss abetted by a fourth-quarter circus catch good for more than 30 yards. Maybe there was something to that karma talk after all. Even the receiver’s name suggested as much: Kearse.
But for all the derring-do the Seahawks displayed, they also committed a couple of derring-don’ts. They burned two timeouts while the clock was already stopped. So when Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower dragged Lynch down at the one-yard line on first-and-goal, Belichick turned the Super Bowl into a game of chicken.
A minute remained. From Seattle’s perspective—knowing Tom Brady was on the opposing sideline—that was an eternity. So, as they pondered the next play call, the Seahawks coaches fixated on bleeding the clock. Belichick helped them by not calling time. That made the plodding clock pick up its pace. Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was bedeviled by details. “There were twenty things going through my mind that we could do,” he said later.
As the clock approached 00:30, Bevell realized that one thing he could no longer do was the one thing everyone thought he ought to: just hand the ball to Lynch—three times if necessary. With only one timeout left, that would have been too risky. If the Pats stuffed Lynch twice, the clock might run out before Seattle could get a final play off.
Carroll: “So we decided on a passing play essentially to waste a down.”
Like Belichick, Malcolm Butler was a step ahead of the Seattle coaches. He had a quick word with Browner when he saw the Seahawks stack Kearse and Lockette on the right. At the snap, Browner tied up Kearse, preventing him from setting a pick. Lockette ran a quick slant toward the middle of the field, which was open as Wilson cocked his arm. “When I threw it,” Wilson said later, “I was like, ‘Touchdown, second Super Bowl ring, here we go.’ And it didn’t happen.”
It didn’t happen because Butler beat Lockette to the spot. He charged with such abandon that he not only intercepted Wilson’s pass but also flattened Lockette, who outweighed him by fifteen pounds.
With the Super Bowl on the line, Bill Belichick made a gutsy call. Malcolm Butler made it pay off by out-booming the Legion of Boom. The play, like the player, came from nowhere.
Although Tom Brady had nothing to do with Butler’s interception, Butler’s interception had everything to do with Brady’s legacy. That one play transformed Brady from a three-time Super Bowl loser to a four-time winner and three-time MVP.