Linebacker Victor Butler had assimilated himself with the Dallas Cowboys during his first four years in the NFL, but he yearned for much more than that. So he seized the opportunity in 2013 to sign a two-year contract with the Saints in free agency, even though they’d given up the most yards in NFL history during the previous season.
“Everybody wants to make that adjustment from fitting in to standing out,” Butler said about coming to the Saints, who had recently hired Rob Ryan, his old defensive coordinator with the Cowboys. “I’ve done four years in Dallas of fitting in. It’s time for me to stand out.”
Didn’t it worry him to join a unit that had been so porous, though? No, because he could tell his teammates were talented.
“We’ve already got the players to be a No. 1 defense,” Butler said of the Saints that year. “You get a defensive coordinator in there — and a guy who’s going to be passionate and can convey that passion on to the players — and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re No. 1 in all categories next year.”
Butler, an edge pass-rushing specialist, was almost a prophet. The Saints went on to hold opponents to the fourth-fewest yards and points en route to a berth in the NFC divisional playoffs. But Butler was cursed to watch every single snap of it from a distance because of a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire season.
Then came an ankle injury that precipitated his release Tuesday, when he was among 15 players the Saints cut ahead of an NFL-mandated deadline to reduce their preseason roster from 90 names to 75.
“You go out, you sign a player like him, you have a role you envision,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of an acquisition that proved to be perhaps among the most star-crossed of his nine-year tenure. “And it didn’t work out.”
Butler was supposed to demonstrate how to execute Ryan’s defense, relying on the experience he picked up racking up totals of 64 tackles, 11 sacks, five pass break-ups, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in Dallas, which chose him out of Oregon State in the fourth round of the 2009 draft.
Furthermore, Butler — who had 40 tackles and a forced fumble on special teams — seemed to be durable. He played in 63 of 64 regular-season games as well as both of two playoff contests possible in Dallas.
For some unknown reason, or maybe none at all, that disintegrated in New Orleans.
Butler banged knees with running back Mark Ingram in the middle of a June 2013 offseason practice and emerged from the collision with a torn ACL in his left knee. The Saints didn’t immediately put him on season-ending injured reserve, hoping instead that he’d heal in time to contribute in time for a playoff run.
Butler hit the physical rehabilitation room with zeal, by all accounts. But he fell short of a full recovery.
“Coach Sean Payton and the organization — they’re wise ... and I think that sitting down with everybody, (it was determined) it’d be in the best interest to not activate me right away,” Butler told The Advocate in December. “Not that it reflects on the job that they did in rehab or I did in rehab — I think it shows great patience and faith from the organization.”
Meanwhile, a defense he was projected to start in did fine without him.
One of the players at his position group, Junior Galette, posted a career-high 12 quarterback sacks, the sixth-most in the NFL. Another, Parys Haralson, contributed 3.5 sacks (fourth-most on the Saints) and 30 tackles while doing solidly in run defense.
Nonetheless, when Butler practiced at full speed on the first day of offseason practices in May, hopes were rekindled he could rotate in at a deep outside linebacker corps.
Butler increased those hopes by completing the offseason practices healthily and reporting to training camp in West Virginia on July 24. All appeared to be progressing smoothly in the early days — but then Butler suffered an ankle injury the Saints didn’t discuss until Tuesday.
He missed three exhibitions, all Saints wins. He didn’t suit up for practices until Monday, when he stretched and ran through preliminary drills.
That was hardly enough to save his job. Butler soon learned a contract that was scheduled to pay him $1.4 million in base salary would be terminated — and that the patience and faith from the Saints he once referred to had dissipated.
Payton on Tuesday said Butler was “frustrated” at the end of a long talk the two had Monday.
“The challenge was just not having the reps needed to evaluate,” said Payton, who insisted Butler was “healthy” from his ankle injury. “It’s always difficult, especially when a player doesn’t have a chance to put his best foot forward. ... You just hope they get another opportunity and get another chance.”
If anyone deserves that, it’s Butler, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said.
“It was tough to see him go through some of the things that we know is a common story in the NFL, where a guy’s body just isn’t cooperating with what he wants to do,” Hicks said. “He’s working as hard as he can to get back. He fought every step of the way, and that’s something that I know he can be proud of when he takes on his next step.”