NFL: Unlikely stars provide lesson about player evaluation

PHOENIX -- Before making the play that millions of people around the world will remember most about Super Bowl XLIX, the last time Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass came in front of 2,843 fans in a Division II football game.

Malcolm Butler
New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday. Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports

PHOENIX - Before making the play that millions of people around the world will remember most about Super Bowl XLIX, the last time Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass came in front of 2,843 fans in a Division II football game.
It was Nov. 14, 2013, when Butler returned a pick 33 yards for a touchdown for West Alabama, whose most famous NFL alumnus three days ago was Charles Martin, the late former Packer known for body-slamming Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. The legend of Butler exceeded Martin’s the instant he stepped in front of Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette to intercept quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass with 26 seconds left to clinch a 28-24 victory for the ages.
By the time they had swept up the confetti off the University of Phoenix Stadium floor Sunday night, Butler’s tale had become part of Super Bowl lore and a testament to how the best NFL teams worry about the bottom of the roster as much as the players at the top of their profession. To how front-office evaluation matters every bit as much to legitimate Super Bowl contenders - attention, Bears - as game-day execution. To how, with a single play, a guy in career limbo like Butler can alter a legacy as much as someone headed to the Hall of Fame.
If Butler had never made the Seahawks pay for one of the dumbest calls since the invention of football, America wouldn’t have spent Monday comparing quarterback Tom Brady to Joe Montana and coach Bill Belichick to Vince Lombardi. If Butler had never intercepted Wilson, and the Seahawks had scored, Belichick’s blunder in not calling a timeout before that fateful play and Carroll’s devil-may-care decision-making that paid off would have dominated post-Super Bowl conversations.
Instead, the interpretation of so many NFL legacies changed because of a lucky find - though teams such as the Patriots and Seahawks that consistently plug in talented personnel from the remotest of places would caution everyone not to forget the skill involved in finding those guys. Super Bowl teams tend be superior in that area. Look at the rosters of both teams as proof; the Seahawks fielded a team full of middle-round discoveries such as Richard Sherman and Wilson while the Patriots started one first-round draft pick on offense and relied heavily on discarded defensive players such as Butler.
Butler played two years of high school football in Mississippi, got kicked out of junior college in 2009 and worked at Popeye’s as he refocused his life. After landing at West Alabama in Livingston, Ala. (pop. 3,297), the fearless, physical cornerback developed a knack for doing whatever coaches asked on and off the field. Hey, kid, can you win the Super Bowl?
“I always knew that I could play in this league, and with dedication and hard work, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” Butler said. “It’s what you do when you get here.”
How many more Malcolm Butlers are out there waiting for an opportunity? How many NFL general managers at their next meeting of college scouts will use Butler as a reason to never assume anything about a prospect?
The Patriots signed the undrafted rookie May 19 and, not long after that, teammates began calling Butler “Scrap,” for his scrappy approach. That determination came in handy after Butler gave up what would have been the most memorable play of the game - a jaw-dropping, twice-tipped 33-yard reception to Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse at the 5 - two snaps before his heroics.
The irony that underscored the value of player scouting and development was that Butler entered the game in the third quarter only because of the dominant first half by Seahawks wide receiver Chris Matthews, whose path to NFL prominence was just as circuitous. Matthews, a Kentucky standout with experience in the Arena Football League and CFL, was working at Foot Locker last winter when the Seahawks called him for a tryout. He didn’t play in a game before Week 14 and hadn’t caught a pass before Sunday. Yet Seahawks coaches kept Matthews sharp enough to respond when their passing game needed a spark from the 6-foot-5, 218-pound target.
At halftime, after Matthews had caught two key passes for 55 yards and a touchdown against Patriots nickel back Kyle Arrington, coach Bill Belichick adjusted. Enter Butler, who had played only 190 snaps all season and was listed fifth on the Patriots depth chart. He replaced Arrington on the opening drive of the third quarter and created a matchup of two of the most famous former part-time employees in Super Bowl history.
Former grocery bagger Kurt Warner, a past Super Bowl MVP in the audience, had to love that.

David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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