It’s officially as official as it can get. New Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis have jersey numbers. Butler will wear No. 21, and Lewis will wear No. 33.
Both players wore those numbers during their time with the Patriots.
Butler’s No. 21 jersey was vacated after the Titans released Da’Norris Searcy earlier in the offseason. That was an easy number to get.
The acquisition of Lewis’ number may have required some finagling. Cornerback Tye Smith was the previous owner of No. 33, but he willingly relinquished it to the running back.
Generally it takes some form of compensation to get a player to give up his number. It sounds like Lewis gave Smith a little money for the number, but the cornerback didn’t demand it.
It’s safe to assume Smith meant “even if there wasn’t money involved” based on context clues.
There’s still no word on Smith’s new number, unless someone is familiar with the number the cornerback coveted in college.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke with reporters for 20 minutes Monday afternoon, covering a wide range of topics, including tight end Rob Gronkowski’s future, having a collective meeting with quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, and how the loss in Super Bowl LII has had a residual effect on everyone, among other things.
But the one topic that stood out to me more than any other was how he answered questions on Belichick’s decision not to play cornerback Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII.
Kraft backed Belichick, calling him the greatest coach of all time, while at the same time talking about empowering those under him to take risks and trust their instincts even if it sometimes doesn’t produce the desired result.
“We want them to be bold, we want them to take risks. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t,” Kraft said, initially speaking of not just Belichick and the Patriots but his managers in other businesses as well.
“I have faith in Bill as a coach that I don’t think there is anyone who has the football knowledge and expertise combined with understanding personnel — no one can merge those two worlds [like him]. He’s done pretty well for us over the last 18 years. So as a fan, I can question some of the moves. As someone who is privileged to be owner of this team, I encourage him to keep going with his instincts and doing what he thinks is right. There is no doubt in my mind, even if he made an error — and this is true with any of our managers — that if they’re doing it for the right reason, then I support it 100 percent. I’ve never had one instance in the 18 years where Bill hasn’t done what he believes is in the best interest of our team to help us win games.”
There was, to me, a lot to digest in that answer.
It starts with unconditional support and respect for the track record. Belichick, no doubt, has earned that.
At the same time, Kraft seemed to be saying that perhaps there has been some acknowledgment behind the scenes that even though Belichick’s intentions were true, the decision — with the benefit of hindsight — ultimately didn’t unfold the way he envisioned.
Six words in Kraft’s remarks hint at that — even if he made an error.
That Belichick could have simply measured the situation incorrectly has been unbelievable to some because of his greatness. He’s usually two steps ahead of the pack.
Since the Super Bowl, the question I’ve heard from fans far more than any other is this: Do you think we’ll ever find out what Belichick was thinking by not playing Butler?
While some fans have moved on, others have found it more difficult to do so because of the feeling that Belichick didn’t put his best players on the field — specifically including Butler as part of the six-defensive-back dime package that was shredded by the Eagles. The idea that safety Jordan Richards and/or cornerback Johnson Bademosi could have been better options in Belichick’s mind as the sixth defensive back — which had a trickle-down effect on other matchups that favored the Eagles — has been puzzling to many.
Belichick obviously had his reasons for not playing Butler on defense, and he’s elected to keep those to himself multiple times. On Sunday, I asked him again and he deflected, speaking respectfully of Butler while adding that he isn’t going to talk about prior years.
Butler himself said it might have been a result of his not being 100 percent focused and locked in leading up to the game; he had arrived a day after the team, noting he had been to the hospital for flu-like symptoms. But Belichick wouldn’t reveal if that was part of his thinking.
Meanwhile, Kraft was speaking from the perspective of a fan Monday, but he also might have been hinting at something to help those who have been struggling to move on: The great ones can also make mistakes, and while this decision didn’t produce the desired results, Belichick still has his unwavering support.