The Pro Football Hall of Fame Case for LeRoy Butler

For Green Bay Packers fans, LeRoy Butler was one of the most memorable players of the 1990 Super Bowl teams, along with two teammates already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, quarterback Brett Favre and defensive end Reggie White, and the general manager of the Packers during most of the 90's, Ron Wolf.

However, because of support for other high-profile safeties in the NFL at the time, Butler has failed for two years (2018 and 2019) to advance beyond the semifinalist round of Hall of Fame selections. How can this be?

First, let's start with Butler's most compelling arguments for the Hall of Fame. He's already a member of the Packers Hall of Fame as of 2007. Butler was named to the 1990's All-Decade team, ahead of 2019 finalist John Lynch (more on him in a bit). A four-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time NFL All Pro, Butler was also the first defensive back in the history of the league to reach 20 sacks and 20 interceptions.

On the All-Decade Team: 22 players were selected on offense and defense by the Pro Football Hall of Fame committee. Of the 22, 19 are already in the Hall of Fame, with two earning finalist status. That leaves Butler as the lone member of the team that hasn't made it past the semifinalist round.

LeRoy Butler's career is a statistical marvel in at least one category: games played. In an era where headhunting safeties and blindside blocks were legal, and concussion protocols didn't exist, Butler missed just four games from 1990 through 2000 during the regular season. His consistency extended to making plays; in all but one year of the decade, Butler recorded at least one interception and one forced fumble, and had fumble recoveries in eight of the ten years in the 90's.

 

Butler's numbers also compare very favorably to some of the other defensive backs up for induction. On the 2019 ballot are Steve Atwater, Champ Bailey, Ed Reed, Ty Law, and John Lynch.

Of that group, Reed is a first-ballot lock; he had 64 career interceptions and was a four-time All Pro like Butler at safety. Champ Bailey might not be a first-ballot lock, but he'll be inducted in short order; Bailey had 52 interceptions in a 15-year NFL career, all at corner. Ty Law had a similar career, 15 years and 53 interceptions while playing all at corner.

If you leave Reed (first-ballot lock) and the two cornerbacks up for induction (Bailey and Law), that leaves three 90's-era safeties essentially vying for induction: Butler, Atwater, and Lynch.

First, former Denver safety Steve Atwater, whose career mostly overlapped Butler's. Atwater had a strong reputation as a hard-nosed run-stuffing safety, and in 167 career games, piled up an average of over 100 tackles per season while also being remarkably durable. However, Atwater notched 24 picks, and only five sacks, as well as only six forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries, all lower numbers than Butler. Some of the Hall of Fame induction process is the eye test administered by the selection committee; Atwater regularly made highlight reels for his bone-jarring hits. This isn't to say Atwater doesn't deserve induction, but the two-time All-Pro doesn't have anywhere close to the numbers, except for tackles, that Butler recorded in his career. Atwater is the other safety on the first team of the All-Decade Team of the 90's.

Another two-time All-Pro who peaked around the turn of the millennium is John Lynch, currently the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Lynch, like Atwater, is remembered for his play in run support, with big hits during the late 90's and early 2000's, and a propensity for forcing fumbles. Lynch recorded 26 interceptions over 15 seasons in Tampa Bay and later Denver, while also piling up over 1,000 tackles. However, his sack (13) and interception totals both fall short of Butler's, and Butler played in three fewer seasons. Lynch also was second-team all-decade (2000's).

On a purely statistical/numerical basis, Butler's credentials are the class of the three 90's-era safeties up for induction. However, the selection committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame has apparently place Atwater and Lynch ahead of Butler for induction, and whether that's for total seasons played or another reason, we may never know. So if we can't argue statistics with the Powers That Be, it's time to get perspectives from some of the teams that had to face Butler over the years.

One of the most revealing articles written about how the Packers were unable to win back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 90's, instead giving way to John Elway and the Denver Broncos, was a short piece by Paul Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated. In Zimmerman's piece, he interviewed Broncos offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who helped put the zone-blocking schemes featuring lighter, more athletic lineman on the map in the NFL with the success of the two-time Super Bowl champions.

In the article, Gibbs told Zimmerman that the most important part of their game plan was to make sure that Butler didn't make plays against the Broncos. Several Broncos players interviewed for the story supported that and described the myriad ways that the offense would go out of their way to stop Butler from getting into the backfield, in some cases bypassing normal assignments or handing off blocking duties on Reggie White or the other Packers defensive linemen to focus on Butler.

Former Minnesota and Baltimore coach Brian Billick told PackersNews.com that in game planning, his teams would have to account for Butler beyond the normal approach to devising offensive strategy, and spoke glowingly about Butler's impact on both the run and the pass.

It's two of the clearest examples that Butler was not only great statistically, but had a unique and unquestionable impact on the NFL during his time in the league. In an era where strong safeties were hard-hitting run-stuffers first and back-end help second, Butler managed to excel in all areas required of the position, with an uncanny knack for making plays in the backfield and forcing turnovers.

 

If that still isn't enough of an argument, that not only was he statistically greater than two of his contemporaries now named finalists for the Hall of Fame ahead of Butler, and was also the key to a championship-level defense, there's the intangible impacts on the game that can be considered as well.

Exhibit A for Butler is the invention of the Lambeau Leap, which has endured since December of 1993 as the trademark celebration for the Green Bay Packers when they score a touchdown at Lambeau Field (and sometimes on the road as well). 

For a quarter century, or for a quarter of the tenure of one of the NFL's cornerstone franchises, its most famous touchdown celebration was invented by a defensive back. 

To LeRoy Butler's credit, he has stayed impressively positive and optimistic about his fate as it relates to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While he is actively campaigning for induction, he's also confident eventually the selection committee will come around to his case and credentials and induct him as a member of the Hall of Fame.

Butler told Packers.com that while he thinks his numbers alone would be enough to get him in, he is also believes the process will play out in his favor. He's even resigned himself to the fate that, after 10 years of eligibility, that he may have to get in as a veteran candidate, like Jerry Kramer did for the 2018 class.

Amid all of the Hall of Fame talk, Butler stays active and involved in Wisconsin, appearing as a frequent guest on media, as a speaker in schools, and is usually present at Packers activities throughout the year. While fans in Wisconsin (and his native Florida) are well aware of his career, and how he is deserving of a nod to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it appears that his induction will have to wait a little while longer. However, when the selection committee comes back around to Butler's case for enshrinement, it should be as easy as a Lambeau Leap to find a place in Canton for the Packers' all-time great.

 

All Photos: Getty Images

 
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