With a Single, Perfect Play, an Undrafted Rookie Becomes a Super Bowl Legend
When it mattered most, Malcolm Butler stopped being Malcolm Butler.
For a moment in time—arguably the most important moment in the Brady-13 years since Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI—Butler became the spirit of the 2014 New England Patriots, the personification of a gritty squad that simply wouldn’t quit. Butler’s big play, the goal-line interception that turned tragedy to triumph for the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, was the perfect finish to a season in which the Patriots repeatedly found themselves seemingly on the brink of collapse only to find a way to triumph.
New England was counted out—with questions raised in the media about Tom Brady’s future—after a stumbling, thoroughly unimpressive 2–2 start that reached its nadir with a Week 4 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. “Let’s face it, they’re not good anymore,” ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said following that loss. And Dilfer was anything but alone in believing the Patriots had finally hit the wall after 14 seasons of excellence.
Then the Patriots ripped off eight straight wins, starting with a 43–17 dismantling of the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals and culminating in consecutive decisive victories over the division leading Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Detroit Lions. The Patriots’ end times had been successfully delayed. And the team continued looking like a powerhouse through the end of the season.
Still, despite having seized the top seed in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots appeared doomed yet again—this time to an early exit from the tournament. In their divisional-round battle with the Baltimore Ravens, the Pats twice fell behind by 14 points. And even after they finally broke through and took the lead for the first time in the game late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots needed to hold off a Baltimore offensive surge and overcome uncharacteristic bad clock management before they were able to advance.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots put the Colts away easily, only to find themselves the next day confronted with allegations of cheating resulting from a poorly managed NFL investigation into charges New England had played the first half with underinflated balls. Deflate-gate’s domination of the sports news cycle during the two-week buildup to the Super Bowl was perhaps the only thing that prevented the oft-repeated opinion that the Patriots were sure to be overmatched in the game by the defending champion Seattle Seahawks’ stifling defense from becoming the main topic of conversation.
And then there was the game, surely one of the most memorable, and probably one of the greatest, Super Bowls ever played.
Twice in the first half, the Patriots took a seven-point lead only to have the Seahawks tie the score in dramatic fashion. Then in the third quarter, due in no small part to Brady’s second interception, the Seahawks took a 10-point lead and appeared to have taken control of the game. No team had ever rebounded after trailing by double digits in the second half of a Super Bowl.
But the Patriots did on the strength of two masterful fourth-quarter scoring drives and two Seahawks three-and-outs forced by the New England D. “There’s no mystery here, fellas,” Coach Bill Belichick had advised his defense. “It’s trusting each other and everybody doing their job.”
With 2:02 to play, the Pats took a 28–24 lead on Brady’s fourth TD pass of the game. All the defense had to do was hold on. And wasn’t that a familiar story?
It got more familiar still.
With the clock ticking down and the Seahawks at the Patriots’ 38-yard line, quarterback Russell Wilson launched a deep pass to Jermaine Kearse near the right sideline. Butler, playing in place of a struggling Kyle Arrington, made an athletic play on the ball. But Kearse pulled off a spectacular, improbable catch, batting the ball into the air repeatedly while on his back, spinning, until he was able to secure the ball. Only a heads-up play from Butler prevented Kearse from getting up and walking into the end zone.
Still, the Seahawks had the ball at the Patriots’ 5-yard line. And they had the league’s best running back, Marshawn Lynch. Things looked grim. Lynch carried the ball to the 1-yard line on first down, and there was little doubt the Patriots were about to lose another Super Bowl because of a virtually impossible catch.
And then came the moment when Butler, an undrafted free-agent rookie out of a Division II school, the University of West Alabama, made one of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history.
On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Seahawks saw the Patriots lined up as if expecting a run play—which is exactly what everyone in America expected. Seattle called a slant.
Butler recognized the Seattle stack alignment from film study. He recalled being beat on the same play in practice. He knew where the ball was going.
Aided by an incredible effort from Brandon Browner that prevented Kearse from setting a pick, Butler broke on the ball a nanosecond before intended receiver Ricardo Lockette. He rocketed from his pre-snap position three yards deep in the end zone, shot past Kearse’s desperately outstretched arm, and, at the 1-yard line, threw his shoulder into Lockette’s and muscled the ball away for a game-winning interception.
Had Butler merely knocked the pass down, the Seahawks surely would have scored on third or fourth down. Had he hesitated at all, Lockette would have made the catch and scored. Had he failed to read the play correctly, he might have left Lockette open on an outside route.
There was exactly one play Butler could have made to end the game. By preparation, intelligence, perseverance, and force of will—by trusting Browner and by doing his job—Butler made exactly that play. And the Patriots were on to a trophy ceremony and a victory parade.
“This excerpt from The New England Patriots Playbook: Inside the Huddle for the Greatest Plays in Patriots History by Sean Glennon is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/PatriotsPlaybook.”