GREEN BAY, Wis. – Ron Wolf and Bill Parcells were having lunch last week when their conversation turned to football, as it seemingly always does.
The two age-old friends, Pro Football Hall of Famers, and Florida snowbirds -- who for years have migrated south to get away from the harsh winters up north -- had watched the NFL Honors and seen the eight-man class of 2016 unveiled. They were also aware that two safeties -- John Lynch and Steve Atwater -- had been among the 15 finalists but weren’t among the five modern-era selections.
Wolf, who’d watched safety LeRoy Butler go to four Pro Bowls after inheriting him from the previous regime when he took over as the Green Bay Packers’ general manager in November 1991, and Parcells, who’d coached Atwater during the 1999 season when the longtime Denver Broncos safety finished off his NFL career with the New York Jets, found themselves discussing why so few players at the safety position have been called to the Hall.
Wolf believes his Packers teams had three Hall of Fame players: Quarterback Brett Favre, who will be enshrined on Aug. 6; defensive end Reggie White, who was inducted posthumously in 2006; and Butler, who has never even made the first cut from the preliminary nominees to the 25 semifinalists.
“LeRoy deserves to be in that conversation,” Wolf said in a telephone interview. “He was the quintessential safety. He could do everything you needed a safety to do -- he could play at the line of scrimmage, he could tackle, he could cover man-to-man, he could dog (blitz). He had no weakness.
“But he’s going to have a tough battle. A very tough battle.”
That’s because the safety position has long been overlooked -- so much so that Lynch and Atwater’s inclusion in the discussion earlier this month constituted significant progress.
“This committee doesn’t elect safeties,” said Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, who has been on the Hall of Fame selection committee for 20 years. “We haven’t found a safety who’s played in the last three and a half decades that we’ve deemed worthy of Canton.
“It’s the most overlooked position in the NFL in the Hall of Fame. That’s what Butler’s up against.”
Only seven safeties are in the Hall, and the last one to have played an NFL game was Ken Houston, who last took the field in 1980 and was enshrined in 1986. The last true safety elected was Paul Krause, who retired in 1979 and wasn’t enshrined until 1998.
More recent enshrinees who played safety -- Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson, Aeneas Williams -- were all Pro Bowl cornerbacks before moving to safety later in their careers.
Butler, who retired in 2001, was a first-team NFL all-decade selection for the 1990s, along with Atwater. (Carnell Lake and Lott, who was a first-team all-1980s pick, were the 1990s’ second-team safeties). All told, there are 11 safeties from the Hall of Fame’s all-decade teams who are eligible for induction but have not been enshrined; of those 11, eight have never even reached the final 15 to be discussed, including Kenny Easley, Joey Browner, Lake and Butler.
“When you start stacking the ones that belong, there’s just a lot of bodies in the queue right now,” said Gosselin, who also founded the Talk of Fame Network with colleagues Clark Judge and Ron Borges. “I feel strongly it’s a position we need to move along. We can’t wait until Ed Reed comes up and declare him the only deserving safety of the last 40 years. We need to get some of these guys in.
“We’ve got to crack the door for these guys. Butler’s in very good company. For not being in the Hall of Fame, he’s with some great players. The Hall hasn’t recognized those players yet. And they need to.”
In Wolf’s opinion, the two safeties most deserving are Butler, who finished his career with 38 interceptions, 20.5 sacks and one Super Bowl title, and Darren Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowler who won three titles with the Dallas Cowboys.
“Both of them really and truly are Hall of Fame material,” Wolf said.
Wolf said Parcells agreed during their conversation because Butler and Woodson were more complete players than Atwater and Lynch were.
Butler’s candidacy -- or lack thereof -- became a topic of discussion in the wake of Favre’s election. Butler himself said he wasn’t fixated on it, but after he read a column by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Oates, Butler did find himself wondering why he hasn’t been discussed more than he has.
A second-round pick from Florida State in 1990, Butler played his first two seasons at cornerback before Wolf hired head coach Mike Holmgren in 1992. Holmgren’s defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes, decided to move Butler to safety, where he’d spend the next 10 years. While Butler moved in part to make room for rookie cornerback pick Terrell Buckley, Rhodes also liked the idea of using Butler’s diverse skill set at safety.
“It comes down to this: When I got the phone call to move to safety in 1992, safeties weren’t doing the things they’re doing now,” Butler said in a phone interview. “Ray Rhodes had this vision. Go back to before 1992, and see how teams were playing safeties and how I played -- close to the line, making sacks, covering tight ends and third receivers. Troy Polamalu, Brian Dawkins -- the recipe for how those guys played was the one we put out there in the 1990s.”
Butler traveled to San Francisco for the Super Bowl week festivities, during which he saw his friend Jerry Kramer, the legendary Packers guard who is on the 1960s all-decade team but not in the Hall. Kramer has made his peace in recent years with not being in Canton, and the two talked about their feelings for the Hall.
“In my mind, I know I made a difference and I know what these safeties now, the ones that weigh between 205 and 215 pounds, I know they’re playing that way because of me,” Butler said. “If it didn’t happen, I’m fine with it. But it’d be fantastic if it did.”