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Bill Belichick keeps coy on Malcolm Butler's Super Bowl benching

ORLANDO, Fla. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick still isn't dishing on why cornerback Malcolm Butler didn't play on defense in Super Bowl LII.

Speaking with a small group of local reporters at the NFL's annual meeting on Sunday evening, Belichick was asked if Butler's remarks in his introductory news conference with the Tennessee Titans -- in which he said he might not have been 100 percent focused -- were a factor that led to his benching on defense.

"I have a lot of respect for Malcolm," Belichick said, deflecting the question in the first time he has met with beat reporters since the day after the Super Bowl. "From the day he got here, in rookie minicamp four years ago, he's always competed as hard as he could. He always is a great competitor on the field. I totally respect that.

"I'm not going to get into last year, I'm not going to get into next year or some other year. I talked to Malcolm. I wish him well in Tennessee. Obviously, [head coach] Mike [Vrabel] and [general manager] Jon [Robinson] are great people I have a lot of respect for in that organization. I have a lot of respect for Malcolm. We wish him well."

Belichick's decision to bench Butler has remained a hot-button topic in New England, even seven weeks after the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. Although Butler's not starting wasn't entirely unconventional -- the team did something similar in the second week of the season against the New Orleans Saints -- his removal from the six-defensive-backs dime package was stunning.

The Eagles were 6-of-9 for 135 yards against the dime defense in the first half and had a 26-yard run against the package. Philadelphia converted six third-down plays against the dime defense in the first half, when safety Jordan Richards was the sixth defensive back (along with two cornerbacks and three other safeties). In the second half, the Patriots pulled Richards in favor of cornerback Johnson Bademosi.

Butler was listed on the team's injury report with an illness the week before the Super Bowl and arrived in Minnesota a day after the team, saying he visited the hospital for flu-like symptoms.

After signing a five-year, $61 million contract with the Titans, Butler addressed the situation in his opening remarks.

"It's all a coaching decision," Butler said that day. "I never questioned anything Bill Belichick makes his decision on. He benched a four-year vet [Kyle Arrington] for a rookie [Butler in Super Bowl XLIX], and that turned out right. I'm just very grateful and thankful for the opportunity the New England Patriots have gave me. They grew me as a player and even more as a person. I really appreciate the Krafts, and I just really appreciate the organization. ...

"I wasn't feeling too well. I feel like that was kind of part of it. Not to blame anybody. I accept full responsibility myself. I'm not blaming the New England Patriots or no one. It could have been just me. It could have been anything. I was not feeling too well, and the New England Patriots are all about doing their job. They want everybody locked in and focused 100 percent, and that probably was not the case."

One of Butler's close friends, former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan (now a teammate of Butler's with the Titans) told Sirius XM Radio on March 14 that Butler knew he wasn't starting. However, Ryan also said in the interview that it was a surprise to Butler that he didn't play a defensive snap.

"Me and Malcolm got years of experience, years together, and we've known so much about each other -- highs and lows. I'm not going to talk about it much, but I will drop this out there: I did know, before the Super Bowl, that he wasn't starting in the Super Bowl. That wasn't news to the people that were really close to the situation," Ryan said on the program. "So I knew that, I knew he was going to go through that. I obviously didn't know it was going to pan out that way, but I knew he wasn't starting the Super Bowl well before the Super Bowl."

Butler was emotional during the national anthem, sparking speculation that perhaps he had learned about not starting just before the game.

On Sirius XM, when asked about Butler not playing a defensive snap, Ryan said, "I didn't know that [would be the case]. That was very surprising for him, for a lot of people. That's the way it went. It's football, and sometimes New England does some weird things, and a lot of times it works. Sometimes it doesn't. It's obviously worked more than it hasn't. A lot of people are chasing them. There have been times where I was benched before games, and I didn't really know a reason to justify it, but that's what they wanted to do, whether it was to push me competitively or contractually. You never know. They keep everybody on their toes there. That's what it is. They kind of keep everybody humble. I think it works. With some guys, it doesn't. Life moves on. It is what it is."