Dougherty: Hall of Fame window cracking open for former Packers safety LeRoy Butler

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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This year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame class included one offensive lineman.

That might not seem to have much to do with LeRoy Butler’s prospects, but it actually just might.

There has been a logjam of good offensive line candidates, and Kevin Mawae’s election Saturday was a first, big step toward breaking that up. The other three among the 15 modern-day finalists were Tony Boselli, Steve Hutchinson and Alan Faneca.

LeRoy Butler (36) celebrates with teammates Brian Williams (51) and Santana Dotson (71) after a sack of Buccaneers quarterback Trent Dilfer in 1996.

Last year, the four probably split the vote too much for any to break through. Judging by the vibe of the selection committee during the nearly eight-hour selection meeting Saturday — I’m one of the 48 voters — I got the feeling that the other three eventually will end up in the Hall.

But one of them getting in this year expedites the process. With Mawae now in, there’s less chance that votes for the others will cancel each other out. (Remember, only five modern-day candidates can make it into the Hall in any given year).

So how does this concern Butler?

Looking ahead, there might be only one first-ballot Hall of Famer in next year’s class. The newly eligible former players will include Troy Polamalu, Reggie Wayne and Patrick Willis. All three appear to have interesting cases, but none is a sure bet to make it on the first ballot.

Polamalu probably has the best shot because along with a solid resume (defensive player of the year in 2010, four All-Pros), he was maybe the key defensive player on some very good Pittsburgh Steelers teams (two Super Bowl wins in three appearances). His most telling stat is that from 2004-11, which was the prime of his career, the Steelers were 77-30 in the games he played, and 12-9 in the games he missed. They had a franchise quarterback, of course, but those numbers suggest Polamalu was a difference maker.

Wayne and Willis, on the other hand, don’t have as strong a case. If Marvin Harrison didn’t get in until his third year of eligibility, it’s hard to see how his teammate Wayne gets in on his first shot. Willis was excellent (five All-Pros), but his relatively short career (112 games) will work against him.

That could leave four spots in 2020 for guys who didn’t make it in this year. Butler wasn’t in the 15 finalists, but he was among the 25 semifinalists (for the second time).

I would guess that next year at least two of the other three offensive linemen make it in, which would clear room for others in the future. More importantly, safety Steve Atwater’s chances for induction appear to be increasing, and if he gets in next year, Butler’s odds improve.

The voting system works like this: At the selection meeting, there’s a presentation and then discussion among the 48 voters on all 15 modern-day finalists. Each voter then chooses 10 on a secret ballot, and the top 10 vote getters move on. There’s another short discussion, and then each voter chooses five, with the five top vote getters moving on for a straight up or down vote. To get into the Hall, a candidate needs a yes vote from 80 percent of the selectors.

I had Atwater in my final 10 but not final five — my five were Reed, Tony Gonzalez, Champ Bailey, Mawae and Hutchinson. But if Atwater had gotten to the final five I’d have voted for him, and the vibe in the room during the discussion on him seemed favorable. One voter, Peter King of NBC Sports, wrote in his weekly column that he had Atwater among his final five. The voters don’t see the vote totals, but King also guessed that Ty Law barely edged Atwater for the fifth spot.

So 2020 might be Atwater’s year. Then things get interesting for Butler.

First, we have to acknowledge that more than just stats determine whether a player is a Hall of Famer in a game as complex as football. Simply comparing numbers alone, especially for defensive players, doesn’t tell the whole story.

Atwater’s case rests on two main points:

One, he’s a first-team all-decade safety of the 1990s as voted by the Hall of Fame selection committee. He’s one of only two first-teamers from that '90s team not in the Hall. That’s a huge mark in his favor.

Second, his argument rests on the impact he had on games that numbers don’t show. Safeties like Atwater don’t exist in the NFL anymore. He was a huge (6-feet-3 and 218 pounds) intimidator at a time when the rules allowed defensive backs to destroy receivers trying to catch passes over the middle. Testimonials from players and coaches he played with and against talked about the catches that weren’t made or even attempted because he roamed the middle of the field.

A second safety also was among the final 15: John Lynch, who was a finalist for the sixth time. His argument rests on a combination of factors: his role as a key player in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ long run as a top defensive team from the mid-90s through the early 2000s, his honors (two All-Pros, nine Pro Bowls) and his longevity (15 seasons).

It’s hard to tell whether his case is running out of steam, or whether his time will come. Atwater might have leap-frogged Lynch, so perhaps it’s the former. We’ll see.

Regardless, Butler’s case stacks up favorably with both.

The starting point is that Butler is the other guy from the ‘90s all-decade first team who isn’t in the Hall. It’s just Butler and Atwater. That matters a lot.

Also, Butler was among the first all-purpose safeties who impacted games both in coverage and as a blitzer. He’s one of only four players in league history with at least 35 interceptions and 20 sacks — he had 38 interceptions and 20½ sacks in his 12 seasons.

The others are Charles Woodson (65 and 25), Ronde Barber (38 and 28) and Brian Dawkins (37 and 26).

Woodson, a shoo-in first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2021, and Barber, who was eligible for the Hall for the first time this year, played mostly as slot cornerbacks. Dawkins, voted into the Hall last year, and Butler are the only two true safeties of the four. And Butler entered the league six years before Dawkins.

Atwater, by comparison, had 24 interceptions and five sacks, and Lynch had 26 and 13.

Again, stats don’t tell the whole story, the eye test matters as well. Atwater’s role as an enforcer at a time when that meant something is compelling. But Butler’s combination of interceptions and sacks is evidence he was disruptive both in coverage and as a blitzer in a vein similar to Dawkins, and in a way neither Atwater nor Lynch was.

At any rate, safeties seem to be getting their due with the committee. In the last three years, four have been inducted (Dawkins and Reed as modern-day candidates, Kenny Easley and Johnny Robinson as seniors).

Next year, it’s looking like at least four will be in the running: Polamalu, Atwater, Lynch and Butler.

Of course, more than just safeties will be on the ballot. Besides Hutchinson, Boselli and Faneca, there’s running back Edgerrin James, defensive lineman Richard Seymour and wide receiver Isaac Bruce, and linebackers Sam Mills, Clay Matthews and Zach Thomas. There are at least a couple new viable candidates every year, and that’s not counting any coaches if the Hall doesn’t eventually create a separate category for them.

Making the Hall is hard, as it should be. That’s why it means so much. But a window is opening for Butler to at least make the final 15 and get his case heard in the room. If and when that happens, things will get interesting. 

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