Thursday, September 28

LeRoy Butler was the best all-around safety of the 1990s

Congratulations to LeRoy Butler for finally getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Butler is a member of the 1990s All-Decade team (and the last position player to get in), a Super Bowl Champion, a 4-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro, and the creator of the Lambeau Leap. It took far, far longer than it should have for this to happen.

Safeties are, in this writer’s opinion, underrated in the grand scheme of football defenses. The burgeoning NFL analytics movement holds the safety as one of the lesser defensive positions, and many Hall of Fame safeties of yore (and a few of more recent vintage like John Lynch) were primarily concussion machines, building their resume on big hits that wouldn’t be allowed today. LeRoy Butler was never that type of safety, and truly was ahead of his time. The safety’s role is apparent from the very name of the position. Any given defense will, on any given play, have an exploitable hole somewhere. The safeties’ job is to see those holes, fill those holes, and prevent disasters, be they in the run game or the pass game.

Butler was a unique talent, excelling in pass coverage while still serving as the surest tackler on any given team. He was a bit of an odd shape, even for a safety, built more like a modern linebacker, but it didn’t impact his ability to run with guys downfield, or take away an especially imposing tight end. Shannon Sharpe and Butler fought some incredible battles, with Butler generally emerging victorious (even when the Packers didn’t.)

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A well-rounded player like Butler will sometimes fall under the radar due to a failure to stick out in any individual stat, but that’s really not the case with Butler. The delay, I think, has more to do with the great talent around him (like Reggie White), and the fact that in the early 1990s especially, Green Bay was still small.

Consider that there are 34 players since 1940 with at least 20 interceptions and 20 sacks. Almost all of them are or were very good players. Brian Urlacher, for example, had 41.5 sacks and 22 interceptions. He is in the Hall of Fame. On the sack-heavy side we also have Seth Joyner, London Fletcher, Wilber Marshall, Karlos Dansby, and Ray Lewis. Ted Hendricks, who had a cup of coffee with the Packers between longer stints with the Baltimore Colts and Oakland Raiders, had the most sacks of this group, with 61, to go with his 26 picks. Notably, most of the players on this list are linebackers, not defensive backs.

On the interception end of the spectrum, our good friend Charles Woodson unsurprisingly leads the group with 65, to go along with his 20 sacks. Charles is obviously in the Hall of Fame and is on the short list of greatest defensive players ever. Larry Wilson of the St. Louis Cardinals is next with 52, and thanks to Pro Football Reference’s work in tracking unofficial pre-1980 sacks, we’re pretty sure he belongs here, with 21 to his name. Larry is also in the Hall of Fame. Third on the list we find Ronde Barber of the Bucs, with 47 picks to go with 28 sacks. Barber was a key cog in the dominant Dungy-era Bucs teams, and he will probably get in at some point.

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And then you have Butler. Butler finished his career with 38 picks and 20.5 sacks in his 12 year career, just ahead of Brian Dawkins, who had 37 picks (to go with 26 sacks), and who is also in the Hall of Fame. Often, combining two statistics, like sacks and interceptions, is a trick to make inferior players stand out, but in the case of Butler and all safeties I think it makes sense. Judging a pure corner by picks and passes defended makes sense. Using sacks, as imperfect as they are, as a proxy for edge play makes sense.

Safeties are not corners, and they are not edge rushers. They’re expected to do everything, and so should be judged by everything. Perhaps passes defended should be included, and I would if I could, but Butler played most of his career before they were tracked. We must use what we have, and what we have is one of the most complete safeties in the history of the league, robbed of some longevity by a broken shoulder blade, who still produced outstanding overall counting stats. In addition, his stretch of play from 1993-1998 is one of the most dominant stretches of all time by a safety, a stretch in which he recorded 27 picks and 16.5 sacks.

Leroy Butler was an incredible player for a truly great Packer team, and he should have been inducted many years ago. These things take time, usually when a player is ahead of his time. Such was the case with LeRoy Butler.

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