A well-deserved honor for Fritz Shurmur

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- LeRoy Butler still gets emotional when he talks about Fritz Shurmur.

That was evident again on Monday, when the former Green Bay Packers safety was told that his old defensive coordinator, the late Leonard Frank “Fritz” Shurmur, was honored by the Pro Football Writers of America.

"I thought he was a God, I really did," Butler said. "The way he connected with us, I don't think you'll ever see that."

Shurmur, known simply as Fritz to most close to him, coordinated the Packers' defenses from 1994-98 (including the top-ranked unit of the 1996 Super Bowl team). He died of cancer in 1999 at age 67. Although he never got the chance to be an NFL head coach, he was one of the most respected assistants in the game.

That he was named to the inaugural class of the PFWA's Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman award, which honors lifetime achievement as an NFL assistant coach and is named for the former Sports Illustrated football writer, could not have made Butler happier.

"I applaud whoever nominated him; I applaud whoever voted for him," Butler said. "He did not get enough credit for having the No. 1 defense because a lot of people looked at it and saw Sean [Jones] and Reggie [White] and Gilbert [Brown] and Santana [Dotson], that good front, and two good safeties with me and Eugene [Robinson], and he didn't get a lot of credit."

Butler, the former Pro Bowl safety who played for the Packers from 1990-2001, called Shurmur his all-time favorite defensive coordinator.

"Here's why I liked him: He never thought he knew everything," Butler said. "And I so admired that. I cannot stress to you what it felt like being around him. He never thought he knew everything. With all his experience, everything he knew, I never got it from him that he didn't want input from his players. And a lot of coaches just don't connect with the players. I used to look forward to our Wednesday meetings at 9 o'clock because I knew he was going to have something new that the other team did not practice for."

Butler brought up the NFC divisional playoff game following the 1995 season as an example. At that week's Wednesday meeting, Shurmur stunned the players by revealing that he planned to use some 3-4 alignments for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Shurmur's defense forced four turnovers in that game and punished 49ers quarterback Steve Young with near-constant pressure in a 27-17 victory that sent the Packers on to the NFC title game.

"No coaches do that," Butler said. "You stick to what you know. If you're a 4-3 team, you stick to that. He convinced us in less than a week that we wanted to change some things to a 3-4. That was brilliant. I walked right in his office and I said, 'You know what? I know don't know if they give out the Nobel prize to coaches, but you deserve one.'"

And then there was the flight home from Dallas a week later. After a crushing 38-27 loss to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, Shurmur called Butler to the front of the plane, where the coaches sat. On a napkin, he scribbled a new formation that he would call the "smoke" defense -- an eight-man front featuring Butler as a blitzing safety -- he wanted to install for the 1996 season.

"On the plane, people were devastated," Butler said. "We just lost, but he's already excited about next year. He said this is going to get us to the Super Bowl."

And it did.

Shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer, Shurmur left Green Bay to join Mike Holmgren's coaching staff with the Seattle Seahawks, but he never made it to their first game.

Shurmur, who began his NFL coaching career with the Detroit Lions in 1975, was one of four long-time NFL assistant coaches honored with the Dr. Z award on Monday. The others were the late defensive guru Jim Johnson, long-time offensive line coach Howard Mudd and former offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese.