Why Atwater, Butler deserve more from Hall-of-Fame voters

Steve Atwater photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos

It took former Dallas cornerback Everson Walls 20 years to become a Pro Football Hall-of-Fame finalist, and that’s both good and bad. Good in that Walls will finally … mercifully … have his case discussed by voters for the Class of 2018; bad in that it took a qualified candidate two decades — or until the last year of his eligibility — to get there.

But at least he made it.

Unfortunately, neither Steve Atwater or LeRoy Butler did … not this year they didn’t … and that’s as troubling as it is puzzling. Yeah, I know, Atwater was a finalist in 2016, but he never made it past the first cut to 10, and he hasn’t been back since. And Butler? He hadn’t been a semifinalist until this year when he was one of 27.

Now, of course, he’s like Atwater — a spectator for the Class of 2018.

And that’s what I don’t get. It’s not simply that these guys are qualified; it’s that their resumes demand the attention they didn’t receive. Each was a Super Bowl winner. In fact, Atwater won twice. Each was a multiple All-Pro and Pro Bowler. Each was a team leader. Each was inducted into his team’s Ring of Honor or Hall of Fame. And, best of all, each was an all-decade choice.

But not just any all-decade choice. Each was chosen to the first-team of the 1990s’ all-decade team by the very board of Hall-of-Fame selectors that now chooses to overlook them.

OK, you say, it happens. Not really. Butler and Atwater are the only two members of the first-team 1990s’ all-decade defense not be enshrined in Canton, and two of only three first-teamers from that squad not inducted.

I find that odd, especially when you consider that five second-team choices — including both cornerbacks — are in the Hall. That’s not to knock the guys who made it. They belong. Heck, Darrell Green was a second-team choice. So were Ronnie Lott (also a first-team choice in the 1980s) and Chris Doleman. And, yeah, you could field a pretty good defense starting with those three.

But you could … and should … add Butler and Atwater, too. I mean, if they were considered the best at their position for a decade, why isn’t there more of a push for either for the Pro Football Hall of Fame today?

“For a decade … if you’re the best at your position … I just think you should be talked about a little bit more,” Butler said on last week’s Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “I’m going to tell you something: I was elated to make the all-decade team because it makes me feel good that, for ten years, I was one of the best at my position.”

Couldn’t agree more.

Look, I know voters have been blind to safeties for years, but that’s beginning to change … basically because it must. Kenny Easley was inducted last summer as a senior nominee, four safeties were among the 27 semifinalists for the Class of 2018 and John Lynch and Brian Dawkins now are finalists — with the smart money on one of them making it when voters sit down in Feb. 3.

But that’s not all. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are just around the bend, with Reed a candidate in 2019 and Polamalu in 2020.

And that’s why I find this week’s results discouraging for Butler and Atwater. The competition will only get stiffer, which means they could … and probably will … get lost in a wave of qualified safeties lining up for induction to 2121 Halas Avenue.

And that shouldn’t happen to a couple of first-team all-decade choices.

It won’t with Dawkins. He was a first-team all-decade choice for the 2000s’  team and could be elected in his second year as a finalist. Reed was a first-team all-decade choice, too, and he not only makes the Hall; he probably makes it on his first try. Lott and Easley were first-team choices from the 1980s’ all-decade team, and both are in Canton, though Easley made it only after the senior committee resurrected his candidacy.

I don’t want that to happen to Atwater or Butler. I’d like to see both of these guys discussed (again, in Atwater’s case) before they disappear in the senior pool … and not because I want to hear why they belong. But because I want to hear why they do not.

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  1. bachslunch
    January 4, 2018

    This being Walls’s last eligible year, I guess it makes sense to give him his day in the room. But I’m not sold on his candidacy (3/4/none, reportedly not overwhelming via film study). Both Steve Atwater (2/8/90s) and Leroy Butler (4/4/90s) are HoF worthy, and both have some eligibility left (5 and 7 years respectively), but with a clogged ballot and Lynch, Polamalu, Dawkins, and Reed ahead of them, it may not be enough time. Darren Woodson (4/5/none) is also worthy and has 9 years left, and he’ll probably need all of it. Hope they get in, but it may be a long shot.

    • January 4, 2018

      Thanks for the emails. Wrote about Butler and Awater today, and you’re right: Line getting so clogged with worthy candidates they may get stuck at the door, waiting to get in. Don’t disagree with you on Walls, especially with Law in the queue. If Law gets in, Walls probably does not. Want to hear the conversation in the room on him. Jacoby an interesting candidate to me. Last year makes him sentimental candidate, but that’s no reason to put a guy in. But if you think he’s worthy and don’t want him to disappear into senior pool, you must act now. Let’s see if it happens. One Problem: OL clogged with candidates and his candidacy went backward last year — from Top 10 in 2016 to Top 15 in 2017. Right now, I have Lewis as lock, with Dawkins and Faneca next most qualified … but Faneca didn’t make Top 10 in each of his first two years. Don’t get it. Eminently qualified.

      • Marc
        January 4, 2018

        “I’d like to see both of these guys discussed (again, in Atwater’s case) before they disappear in the senior pool … and not because I want to hear why they belong. But because I want to hear why they do not.” Very well said, Clark. Perfect statement. Keep pushing for these two!

        Reed and Dawkins aren’t going to have a problem getting in. Reed will most likely be first year candidate. In the case of Dawkins, it is when, and not if.

        Polamalu in comparison to these two is more interesting. I don’t think his case necessarily leapfrogs ahead of Butler and Atwater. He has the DPOY, but I’d argue these 90’s safeties set the mold for the next generation of safeties.

        Lynch continuing to get the nod over these two is the confusing one in my opinion. He played on one of the best defensive teams of all time, however, he never lead his team in any major statistical category and he was not 1st or 2nd team all decade in either the 90s or 00s. This defense also has two HOFers in Sapp and Brooks and has two other players that have a case in Rice and Barber. Plus an additional player that was 2nd team all decade in Nickerson. That’s 6 players one one defense that although had an average offense, still only won 1 Super Bowl and who’s stretch of dominance was no longer than 80s Bears who only have 3 HOF defensive players, or 00s Ravens who will only have 2 to 3.

        If memory serves me right, I don’t think Dawkins or Atwater played with any other defensive teammates who are or will be HOF finalists?. Butler played with Reggie White, but was still a major, if not the largest, focal point of the opposing offense.

        I think this is going to be the third year Lynch’s case gets heard. At what point do those on the committee decide they’ve heard the same case enough and say it’s time to hear the next one?

  2. Buddy Fisher
    January 4, 2018


  3. January 4, 2018

    No question CANTON hates the BRONCOS.

    If Atwater played for the bears, SF, or the gaytreeits he is FIRST VOTE HOF entrant. He was NOT JUST the MOST dominant player at his position for a decade- other teams FEARED playing him- he was as tough against the pass as the run, he was versatile, a team leader…he checks EVERY BOX.
    This IS further PROOF that the HALL HATES the BRONCOS

    I will NEVER visit Canton.


  4. January 4, 2018

    PS thanks Clark

  5. Rob
    January 4, 2018

    Clark, Would Butler and Atwater benefit from an amnesty year that Rick has advocated for?

  6. Steve
    January 4, 2018

    Butler’s numbers significantly surpass both Atwater and Lynch, and he’s absolutely on par with Dawkins. In fact, what’s not mentioned is Butler was the first defensive back in NFL history with 20 sacks and 20 INTs, and the hybrid role he created — (starting with Packers defensive coordinators Ray Rhodes and continuing with Fritz Shurmur) a free safety blitzing, covering slot receivers and TEs, while also dropping deep in coverage, was what Dawkins copied during his career. Butler was a pioneer who reinvented the safety position. playing at the highest level, and should have his case heard by voters. Then, he should be inducted as a Hall of Famer.

  7. Patrick Bailey
    January 5, 2018

    Hoping we dont put too much merit on the all/decade option. There are plenty of great players that werent all-decade that still should get in. As a Cowboys fan i think Woodson and Howley both should be in and neither was all-decade. Though you could argue they should have been. Sometimes there is bias and sometimes its more of a mid-decade to mid-decade issue like for Howley 1965-75. But if all-decades count, explain Drew Pearson, Harvey Martin and Cliff Harris. Whether its 1st or 2nd team. Walls was great but then played on some bad teams. And yes while a Cowboys fan, I recognize other misses. Atwater, Mecklenberg, Joe Jacoby, Roger Craig, Cliff Branch, Lester Hayes etc. but then i question why a guy like John Lynch is getting so much love, when Tiki is more worthy. With more teams and more games they need to consider expanding the number of players. Too many coaches and assistants to mention.

  8. Anonymous
    January 8, 2018

    Thank you Clark! You know my opinion well as I have stated it many times!

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