Malcolm Butler is Superbowl’s MVP. If you sell, why you care.

“Malcolm Butler,” said the caller, “is the MVP. He doesn’t make that interception in the end zone at the end of the game, New England loses.

I was driving from Miami to Orlando on the day after the Super Bowl. My rental car had satellite radio. Midway through the drive, I realized I could listen to Super Bowl sports talk radio to my heart’s content. So, a New England Patriots fan since 1970, I did.

The radio host cut off the caller, in order to comment uninterrupted. “Malcolm Butler made one great, smart football play that won the game for New England. He picked off the pass, but you don’t give the MVP to a player for one play.”

Malcolm Butler sealed the deal for the Patriots. Sniffing that play out and stepping in front of the receiver. Indeed, knocking the receiver off the ball to do it, was the defining moment in the Patriots victory. It was the Most Valuable Play.

But, I agreed with the host. You don’t give the MVP to a player for one play, no matter how extraordinary or important that play is.

…All he did was pick off one pass…

That phrase was repeating itself in my head. It reminded me of something. Something my intuition was nagging me to think more about.

As I ruminated further on my three and a half hour drive, another story in my life began to play itself out in my head.

When I first began my professional career; long before the New England Patriots had won any Super Bowls, I occupied a cubicle on the 13th floor of an office building in downtown Boston. From one side of our floor plan, you could look out over the South East Expressway, now underground, courtesy of Boston’s twenty-year Big Dig construction project. From the other side, the office looked out over the Fort Point Channel and the Boston Tea Party ship. Down the hall from my cubicle was an empty office. Well, most of the time it was empty. Once every two weeks the salesperson, Ernie, who occupied it, would be there for a few hours. The rest of the time, he was out playing golf or dining at fine restaurants. One day, I was searching through some file cabinets outside his office as he hung up the phone. He sat back at his desk with a big smile and waved me in.

“I just stole the Mecklenberg deal from our competition.”

“How’d you do that? I asked.

He grinned and pointed at his desk.

“All I did was pick up the phone.”

Thirty minutes later Ernie took a victory lap. In fact, Ernie hadn’t left his office in those thirty minutes. I had unwittingly prepared Ernie’s victory lap by mentioning Ernie’s coup to one of the senior analysts, as he knew I would. The news spread from there. A victory lap makes it sound athletic. It wasn’t. Ernie had a big belly and a soft body. By the time he was waddling through the hallways enough people knew about the Mecklenberg coup that he was shaking hands, fielding questions and slapping backs, as the rest of my colleagues learned of Ernie’s interception.

The company buzzed for three days. Ernie had meetings with the President and the CEO and even ownership to iron out the details of execution. During that time, Ernie took at least one victory parade a day around the office.

From my perch in cubicle #137, it seemed like Ernie had a great job. He had admitted to me, that all he had done was “pick up the phone.” The rest of the time Ernie was golfing, eating or so it seemed to me, basking in the limelight of “picking up the phone,” and making a lot more money than the rest of us.

Ernie had his own analyst who was a friend of mine. Dan was always busy, even if Ernie wasn’t. I resented Ernie. He got the glory for answering the phone, and Dan got the work that needed to be done. A few days later, while Dan and I were having a sandwich together at a local deli, I shared my thoughts on his boss. I expected that once someone empathized with Dan’s plight, the floodgates would open, and I’d hear all about what a lucky, lazy guy Ernie was.

That’s not what happened.

Dan said, “I love working for Ernie. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and he enjoys life. But he is relentless. And I don’t mean in his pursuit of customers. I mean in following his process, preparing, and finding ways to be constantly in touch with clients. Then figuring out ways to help them get what they want. After every meeting with a prospective client, even clients we’ve had for years, Ernie and I have at least an hour phone call. He fills me in on everything he learned, and together we build ideas for what to do next. Then we decide who’s going to do it. I do most of it, the bridge building. That’s what Ernie calls it. Building bridges to the client, over and over and over.”

Dan sat back and looked out the window at the crisp blue Boston winter sky. “It’s really a repetitive process in its execution, and a creative process in the moment. It’s being prepared and doing the work as best you can. Ernie has taught me a ton.”

I told Dan, that Ernie admitted to me that all he did “was pick up the phone.”

“Yeah. That’s Ernie humor. He wasn’t being serious. I assure you. There’s a reason he was in the office that day to field that call. He knew it was coming.”

Like most New England Patriots fans, I watched the Super Bowl a second time. And then I watched it again; the third time with an eye on Malcolm Butler.

From just under three minutes to go in the 3rd quarter until the end of the game, Seattle runs sixteen offensive plays (not counting kicks). Malcolm Butler figures prominently in seven of these plays. He makes a positive impact eight times in those sixteen plays. Malcolm Butler was all over the field in the last two quarters, relentlessly making great football plays.

Here they are..

1. On first down with 2:37 to go in the third quarter, Butler stuffs Marshawn Lynch on a run up the middle.

2. On the next play, Kearse catches a ball in the right flat and is immediately taken down by Butler, forcing Seattle into a third down.

3. On third down, Seattle targets Butler again, sending Kearse down the left sideline. Russell Wilson throws a perfect pass. Malcom Butler is stride for stride with Kearse, and grabs Kearse’s right arm just as the ball hits his hands. Kearse doesn’t make the catch.

Seattle punts.

On it’s next possession, New England scores to move within three points of Seattle.

4. On the first play of Seattle’s next possession, Wilson throws a twenty-yard pass over the middle to #83 Lockette. Butler is on the coverage; he falls down. But as Butler is hitting the turf, he extends his arm just far enough to catch Lockette’s heel. Lockette trips. The pass is incomplete. I’ve watched the play seven times at full speed and I never see Butler’s hand hit Lockette’s heel. Watch the play in close-up slow-mo, and it’s clear that Butler makes contact with Lockette’s shoe on purpose. It is pass interference. But Butler does it in such a way that it looks like he’s reaching only to break his fall. He brilliantly disguises the trip. If Lockette makes the catch, he has only one Patriot to beat and he’s in the end zone. It’s a decisive play.

Two plays later Seattle punts.

The ensuing possession ends when Brady connects with Edelman in the end zone to give new England a 28-24 lead.

5. On Seattle’s final possession at midfield with 1:50 remaining in the game, Wilson throws another perfect pass straight over the middle to Kearse in the seam. Butler is running stride for stride again. He leaps just as the ball arrives, tipping the ball away from Kearse, negating a thirty yard Seattle gain.

6. Then the miracle catch- Streaking down the right sideline, Butler gets his hand exactly between Kearse’s outstretched hands and Wilson’s thirty yard pass, and tips the ball up and away from Kearse. Kearse winds up on his back on the turf at the five-yard line; the ball bounces first on one knee then the other, and Kearse corrals the ball while on the ground. He jumps to his feet, and races towards the goal line.

7. Butler stays with the play and takes Kearse out of bounds at the four-yard line. The announcers point out that after a crazy catch that appears to have been an incompletion, the receiver often skips into the end zone before the defenders know what happened.

8. And finally, The Interception. Butler sniffs out the goal line crossing pattern and beats the receiver to the ball, sealing the deal for New England.

Eight heads up football plays in Seattle’s final sixteen plays of the game. Any one of which, if Butler doesn’t make, could change the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX. If Malcolm Butler isn’t on the field for the fifteen Seattle plays that preceded his interception, the Patriots have already lost.

In the post game interview Malcolm Butler is too emotional to go into much detail, but he does say it was all about preparation. This seems like just what coaches tell athletes to say in interviews. But later interviews with Butler and Coach Belichick reveal that the goal line pick play was something the Patriots had prepared for. Indeed, Butler was burned on the play in practice. And Belichick reportedly said to Butler in one of the final play stoppages to “watch out for that pick play.”

Butler later admitted something like,” When I saw the formation I was ready for the pick play. Actually, I was so ready for it, if they ran something else, I was in trouble.”

So, not only did all the work Malcolm Butler do in the last half of the football game put his team in a place where the play could even happen, his focused preparation in the weeks leading up to the game were critical. Malcolm Butler worked his ass off to put himself in a position to pick off that pass.

I no longer agree with the radio host. Malcolm Butler is the MVP of Super Bowl XLIX.

Perhaps, it’s a stretch to say that his interception was a foregone conclusion. But Malcolm Butler’s work was responsible for the Patriot’s still having a chance. Because of his preparation, he knew where the ball was going to be on that play. All he had to do was be there…

“to pick up the phone.”


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