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Butler burned, but not beaten

Tough games make him work harder

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / September 26, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Darius Butler fiddled with the buttons of his dress shirt as the questions poured in over his shoulder last Sunday. The 24-year-old Patriots cornerback had been beaten on the field at New Meadowlands Stadium in every way imaginable.

New York Jets receiver Braylon Edwards felt so good about his touchdown catch over the second-year Patriot that he jumped up and taught Butler how to “Dougie’’ as his celebration dance. And when it wasn’t an opponent pushing him around, Butler hurt himself by picking up back-to-back pass interference penalties late in the game. In the 28-14 loss, he helped make Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez look like a star.

Butler waited for the questions. Did the frustration get the better of him? What’s the best way to respond to a game like that? How would he assess his performance?

Butler answered the inquiries one by one. Cameras and bright lights joined the media herd. Butler could have made a quick exit, but he stayed.

“I guess it’s a personal thing,’’ he said. “If I make a mistake or if I do things right every time, I’m going to face the music and talk about it. That’s part of the job as a professional.

“Obviously, that’s how we make our money, from the fans watching us and the media putting it out there. Just like y’all got a job, that’s my job.’’

The criticism of Butler’s play against the Jets came quickly. He saw the posts on Twitter. He heard the negative words. Those close to him didn’t sugarcoat their thoughts on his performance. Hours after the loss, Butler posted on Twitter, “life is 10% what happens to you [and] 90% how [you] react to it. Tough game for me but I’ll bounce back!’’

There will be chances for Butler to prove himself again, but he may have to wait. On Friday, special teamer Kyle Arrington took a few snaps with the first-team defense, according to a league source.

Butler started at corner the first two games opposite rookie Devin McCourty. In the season opener, Butler lined up against Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who had a game-high 12 catches for 159 yards and one touchdown. Ochocinco piled up the yards but didn’t have a big play in the Patriots’ 38-24 win.

But against the Jets, Butler was picked apart. Edwards had five catches for 45 yards and also reached over Butler to snag a 2-point conversion pass. Coach Bill Belichick praised Butler for his work in the preseason and added that he is getting better but no one is immune from a bad game.

“I think everybody that’s in the National Football League has had a bad day — every coach, every player,’’ Belichick said. “I couldn’t list anybody that hasn’t. We’ve all had to go through that.

“It’s part of being a competitor — finding a way to correct the mistakes and move on and perform better in the next opportunity you get. If you play at this level of competition, there are times you’re going to come up short.

“We’re playing against other good players, good teams, good coaches every week, too. They’re working just as hard as we are. They’re just as talented as we are. They’re going to make some plays. You learn to correct your mistakes and move on.’’

Butler is the kind of player to do just that, said Scott Lakatos, who was Butler’s secondary coach at the University of Connecticut. Lakatos, now Georgia’s defensive backs coach, didn’t see the Patriots’ loss Sunday but reports of Butler’s struggles found their way to him. But Lakatos said he wasn’t worried about Butler.

At UConn, Butler was the kind of player who “self-corrected’’ and would answer anyone’s questions after a bad game. Lakatos wasn’t surprised that Butler did the same thing after last Sunday’s loss.

“One of the things we noticed about him early was that he was always a stand-up and accountable person,’’ said Lakatos. “He wasn’t going to roll up and get after guys verbally. He just made other people accountable because he was. That was the expectation he had for himself.’’

By the time Lakatos arrived at UConn, the Huskies had locked up the former high school quarterback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Butler had the athleticism but wasn’t pegged to be a college quarterback. So the Huskies moved him to defensive back. Butler red-shirted his first season to give him time to learn the position and physically mature.

“He wasn’t close to being developed enough yet,’’ Lakatos said. “You could see how athletic he was. The biggest thing was that he never really played [defensive back] before.’’

After a year of learning and preparing for the position, Butler became a four-year starter. He was a captain for two seasons and had 10 career interceptions and 180 career tackles. When NFL scouts were assessing Butler’s ability, the buzzwords were athleticism, footwork, and ball handling, Lakatos said.

Butler may have played the position for four years, but he constantly had things to work on. Getting the timing of his jumps to compete with talented receivers was at the top of the list.

“That’s the hardest thing about the position in general is timing,’’ Lakatos said. “Just being able to get your hands on the ball at the right time and having the strength to dig it out. He’s increased his strength from the time he left [UConn], and that’s something he continues to work at. When you’re a corner, and you’re not strong enough, you get bounced around a bit.’’

There was enough the Patriots liked about the 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pound Butler to take him with their second-round pick in 2009 (41st overall). He found his way into 14 games his rookie season, collecting 33 tackles and returning an interception against the Texans 91 yards for a touchdown.

Throughout last season, Butler said he leaned on veteran defensive backs like Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. Springs is no longer with the Patriots, but he watched Sunday’s game and dialed up Butler afterward to encourage him and lighten his spirits.

When Butler answered his phone, Springs said, “What the hell are you out there doing?’’

Butler just chuckled and then asked for advice from Springs, who played 13 NFL seasons with the Seahawks, Redskins, and Patriots. Springs encouraged Butler to “play certain things but also do what the coach tells you to do.’’

Free lancing wasn’t the way to go against the Jets, and Springs said Butler just looked out of place. But Springs said he believes Butler is one of the most talented corners he ever played with, and this doesn’t have to be anything more than a lesson learned.

“You’re always going to take your lumps,’’ Springs said. “Teams are going to game plan for you, and the only way you’re going to get them off of you is to start making some plays. At some point, you’ve got to make a play.’’

A couple of days after the loss, Butler said he watched film with his teammates and looked at what went wrong. Ultimately, he said, he can’t think too much before making decisions.

“The people in this locker room and the people around me know I can play ball, so this is just about going out there and putting it together on the game field,’’ Butler said.

So can Butler be the type of contributor the Patriots need?

“Of course,’’ he said. “I’ve been blessed with the ability, the strong will, the strong mind. I’ll get it together.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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