“Of that first-team All-Decade defense from the 1990s, who is not in the Hall of Fame? Two guys: LeRoy Butler and Steve Atwater.”
Just one pure safety who has played in the last 30 years is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And while Brian Dawkins, a 2018 inductee, is certainly deserving of that honor, it was Steve Atwater who set the tone for the physical, versatile safeties who have stretched the boundaries of how the position could impact the game.
This was apparent in the 1990s. Even while Atwater was at his apex, building off the example set by Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley and other Hall of Famers, other defensive coaches pointed to him as the example.
“I’ll never forget when I got down to Tampa and that staff was a beautiful staff with Tony Dungy, [defensive coordinator] Monte Kiffin and Herm Edwards was my DB coach,” said Ring of Famer and five-time Hall of Fame finalist John Lynch said. “The first thing Herm Edwards did was pull out a tape of Steve Atwater and said, ‘This is how we envision you playing.’ It was a highlight tape of Steve Atwater doing what he did and did so well.”
Atwater was called the “Smiling Assassin,” and the name is apt. While his on-field physicality made offensive players shake in their cleats, his sportsmanship and ensured that he would often be the first with a hand to help a fallen competitor back to his feet.
His nature is modest. When it comes time to sing his praises, he prefers to let others do it. He already has a dazzling resume of post-career honors ranging from the Broncos Ring of Fame to the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame to the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. He has a similar honor from his alma mater, the University of Arkansas.
Only one thing is missing — a Hall of Fame nod.
He is one of just two members of the NFL’s All-Decade defense for the 1990s without a bust in Canton. The other, like Atwater, was a dominant safety in his playing days — former Packers standout LeRoy Butler.
Of course, Butler only has four Pro Bowl nods. Atwater has eight. Butler has one Super Bowl ring. Atwater has two.
“Of that first-team All-Decade defense from the 1990s, who is not in the Hall of Fame? Two guys: LeRoy Butler and Steve Atwater,” Hall of Fame voter Clark Judge said in 2017. “And we had LeRoy Butler on a [2017 radio] show with Steve Atwater … and LeRoy Butler said, ‘Steve Atwater should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the basis of that Christian Okoye hit alone.'”
The Okoye hit on Monday Night Football in 1990 is a signature moment. But all it does is crystallize a Hall of Fame resume.