Cleaning up the carnage of a 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII began Monday afternoon for the New England Patriots.
The team returned from Minnesota to Gillette Stadium less than 24 hours after the loss, in which the Patriots compiled 613 yards of total offense – the most by a losing team in any game, regular or postseason, in NFL history.
Far more questions than answers remain from the fallout of the loss, including just what on earth happened to Malcolm Butler.
Only about 15 players strolled through the locker room during media availability, and only one – defensive end Eric Lee – spoke with reporters.
"I have no clue about that," Lee said when asked about Butler's situation.
Butler played a team-high 1,037 snaps on defense in the regular season. When New England's defense was on the field, Butler was out there 97.8 percent of the time. Butler didn't come off the field when the Patriots were on defense in either of their first two postseason games against the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, but played just a solitary snap on special teams against the Eagles. Eric Rowe started in his place opposite Stephon Gilmore at cornerback, with defensive backs Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards also getting playing time in lieu of Butler.
Why was he dressed for the game, only to be a pseudo-inactive?
"I'm the wrong person to talk to about that," Lee said.
Butler will be an unrestricted free agent on March 14 at 4 p.m., when all 2017 player contracts expire and the first day of the 2018 league year begins.
Asked via conference call Monday morning to explain to emotionally invested fans why Butler didn't play, Belichick said that he appreciated the question, but added that it would be a much longer discussion.
"There are a lot of things that go into that," Belichick said. "In the end, the final decision is what I said it was."
Belichick's conference call with the media also included his refusal to answer a reporter's question pertaining to his returning for the 2018 season.
"I've addressed that question," Belichick said.
If he's referring to his answer from a conference call held on Jan. 8, when Belichick said that he "absolutely" intended on returning to New England for a 19th season, then we have our answer.
Tom Brady said Sunday night that he expected to be back with the Patriots next season, but one of his favorite targets in the passing game didn't sound as committed. Rob Gronkowski, who had nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles, wouldn't say definitively that he'd be back in Foxboro for his ninth season last night.
"I'm definitely going to look at my future for sure," Gronkowski said to reporters after the game. "I'll sit down in the next couple of weeks and see where I'm at."
Gronkowski was named First Team All-Pro at tight end for the fourth time in his career in 2017. He's under contract through the end of the 2019 season; he's due to make $10,906,250 in 2018 and $12 million in the final year of his contract as currently constructed. He's set to be the highest-paid tight end in the NFL in each season of his current deal.
In addition to Butler, 14 other members of the Patriots are set to test free agency in March. According to Spotrac, Danny Amendola, Nate Solder, Matthew Slater, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, James Harrison, LaAdrian Waddle, Johnson Bademosi, Brandon Bolden, Nate Ebner, Cameron Fleming, Marquis Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Ricky Jean-Francois will see their contracts expire when the new league year begins on March 14.