Aaron Nagler and Ryan Wood discuss former Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler's chances of getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Feb. 19, 2018)
GREEN BAY – When Jerry Kramer finally passed through the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee earlier this month, LeRoy Butler rejoiced.
He celebrated for Kramer, who at age 82 waited long past his due for football’s highest honor, in Butler's view. But the former Green Bay Packers safety also was hopeful for himself.
With Kramer awaiting enshrinement, Butler takes his place as the Packers’ greatest remaining Hall of Fame “snub.” He might not be the next Packers player enshrined. Charles Woodson, whose best years came in Green Bay, is expected to be a first-ballot selection in 2021. But Butler could gain a groundswell of support from Packers fans now that Kramer is headed to Canton.
Butler’s new position atop the Packers “snub” list isn’t lost on him. While Kramer was still outside the Hall of Fame, Butler was content to wait for what he perceived would be his rightful turn.
Now, he hopes that time has come.
“To me,” Butler said, “when Dave Robinson got in (Class of 2013), I was like, ‘Well, Kramer has to be the next guy from the ‘60s to get in. And once Kramer gets in, I can get the entire Packer Nation behind me.'”
For many reasons, 2017 might be remembered as the year Butler’s candidacy took flight. Though he did not make the final list of 15, Butler was among 27 semifinalists. It was the furthest he’d ever reached.
While Kramer’s induction for the Class of 2018 clears the way for the Packers' fan base to unify behind Butler, his wasn’t the only enshrinement that left the former Packers safety optimistic.
Perhaps just as important, Butler believes, was former Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins clearing the selection committee. Dawkins, who passed the vote in only his second year of eligibility, will be only the eighth player exclusive to the safety position enshrined in Canton.
“I think Dawkins opened the door now,” Butler said.
Butler already might be enshrined if not for playing the most underserved position in the Hall of Fame’s selection process. Just one example of how the safety position has been treated by voters can be seen in the 1990s all-decade team.
Only three first-team players have yet to be enshrined. Two are safeties: Butler and Seattle’s Steve Atwater, a finalist in 2016. The other is former Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, who twice has been a finalist.
“The hard thing at that position,” NFL Network analyst and former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said, “it’s not like the offensive guys. Because they have all the numbers that you can compare. And then the fat guys like Reggie (White), that helps you quantify it. For the safeties, it’s a little bit different. Yeah, they’re going to have some numbers, but the interception numbers aren’t going to necessarily hold up to corners. Their sack numbers aren’t going to hold up to defensive ends. Their tackles may not hold up to linebackers.
“So to me, that’s a difficult thing when you’re talking about a Hall of Fame player at the safety position, because it’s kind of like an offensive tackle. It’s harder to quantify what their value is.”
As a safety, Butler’s candidacy is strong. Known most endearingly among Packers fans for inventing the Lambeau Leap, Butler possesses plenty of football credentials for voters to consider.
For starters, Butler played four fewer seasons than Dawkins but had one more interception. Asked if he knew which safety had more, Butler, always a mega-watt personality, didn’t hesitate.
“I know, right,” he said. “Don’t that just kick you in the (groin)?”
In a broader perspective, Billick described Butler as a trailblazer for what’s become the modern safety, a position that seems to be more valued around the NFL each passing year.
Butler laid a blueprint for how teams could use a complete safety. He finished with 38 interceptions and 20.5 sacks in his career, becoming the first defensive back in NFL history to officially join the 20-20 club.
“I wanted to do something no one else was doing back then,” Butler said.
White was the leader of those 1990s Packers defenses, but Butler’s versatility gave opposing offenses fits. Billick, the Minnesota Vikings tight ends coach in 1992 and ‘93 before being promoted to offensive coordinator from 1994-98, said Butler’s pass-rush ability brought a dynamic from the safety position that hadn’t been seen before.
It was different, Billick said, than the “Blitzburgh” defensive style made famous by the Pittsburgh Steelers, a scheme in which defensive backs routinely became extra pass rushers.
Butler, Billick believed, didn’t need the right scheme to be a threat rushing the passer.
“He could match up one-on-one and be down in the box. Which was rare,” said Billick, who led the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XLVII. “I mean, you usually had one or the other. The guy (who didn’t drop) down in the box, he could cover your tight end, but he was useless in the running game. Or you had a guy who was really good at dropping down in the box and stopping the run, but he wasn’t going to hold up one-on-one with a guy in the slot. LeRoy was one of the guys who could do it all.
“Being an offensive coordinator, this was something new — ‘God, you mean I have to account for a safety now?’ — in terms of pass rush, the eight-man box and running. So that was one of the adjustments we had to make back then.”
To put Butler’s production in historical context, the former Packers safety finds elite company. Butler is one of only four defensive backs to have 35 interceptions and 20 sacks, joining Dawkins, Woodson and Ronde Barber. (Rodney Harrison, an All-Pro safety with New England and San Diego, just misses the cut but certainly had Hall of Fame numbers with 34 interceptions and 30.5 sacks in his career.)
Of the group, Butler’s 12 seasons were fewest. His career ended at age 33 when he fractured his shoulder, something that conceivably limited his career numbers at least a little.
Butler’s closest competitor for induction has been John Lynch. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos safety has been a finalist each of the past five years. Billick said he believed Butler’s career was worthy of the Hall of Fame, but was careful to add Lynch also should be enshrined.
Lynch’s nine career Pro Bowls tops Butler’s four. But each of Butler’s four All-Pro selections were to the first team, including three straight from 1996-98. Lynch was selected first-team All-Pro twice, with two more second-team selections.
Lynch, who finished with 26 interceptions and 13 sacks in 15 seasons, wasn’t selected to an all-decade team. By virtue of his career numbers and accolades, Butler could lay claim to being the best safety through the 1990s.
“He was a chirper,” Billick remembered. “He was a guy who could talk a pretty good game, and when you played against him, he was a pain in the ass. And you dog-cussed him, and you hated the guy, but you’d take a dozen LeRoy Butlers if you could get them. Because you recognize as a coach, yeah, he’s a pain in the ass, but, boy, I’d love a guy like that. You’d love to have him on your team.”
In the near future, the Hall of Fame will be practically forced to induct more safeties. Ed Reed, whom Billick coached in Baltimore, is expected to be a first-ballot choice in 2019. Troy Polamalu, the other first-team, all-decade member of the 2000s, also stands a good chance of induction not long after he becomes eligible in 2020.
Butler believes the influx in safeties helps his case, bringing awareness to the position. He hopes he doesn’t have to wait as long as Kramer to get his enshrinement.
“I’m going to need that wave of Packer Nation behind me,” Butler said, “to be able to get into that final 15, or to make it more relevant to talk about. Because I think once they get in the room and talk about it, it’s a slam dunk. It really is.
“I always thought that once Jerry got in — I thought two things: If Jerry got in and another safety, then I’m assured of a chance to get in.”