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The Safety Championship Belt, Part III

On Monday, we began our journey through the history of the Safety Championship Belt — i.e., identifying who held the title of best safety in football in each year from 1950 to 1970. Yesterday, we continued from 1971 to 1990.  Today, we pick back up with a familiar name at the top of the list.

1991: Ronnie Lott, Los Angeles Raiders

In ’91, Lott moves to Los Angeles and donned the silver and black, the perfect look for one of the game’s most ferocious hitters.  The move revitalized his career, as Lott switched positions from free to strong safety.  The move worked, as he registered 93 tackles and a league-high 8 interceptions.  Four of the major services (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers, Pro Football Weekly, and Sporting News) named Lott a first-team All-Pro, but there were more honors in store for the 31-year-old.

The NFL’s Players Association named him Defensive Back of the Year, while the Washington Post and Newsday named him Comeback Player of the Year (while Lott was an All-Pro in ’90, he missed substantial time with knee injuries, and the 49ers allowed him to move on in part because they thought Lott was essentially done). He even finished tied for fourth with Derrick Thomas for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award (behind Pat Swilling, Seth Joyner, and Reggie White).  And Tom Ford at the Tampa Tribune named Lott the AFC Defensive Player of the Year.

One other safety also was named first-team All-Pro by four different organizations in 1991, but he would have to wait a year to earn the championship belt.

1992: Steve Atwater, Denver Broncos

Atwater and Lott were neck-and-neck for the title of best safety of ’91; the same could be said of Atwater and Buffalo’s Henry Jones in ’92.  But Atwater absolutely deserves a spot on our list somewhere, and by ’92, he had established himself as among the elite. If you want to take the longer view, the Broncos star safety was one of the game’s best defenders for a decade.

The hard-hitter rose to national prominence in week 2 of the 1990 season.  There, on Monday Night Football, Atwater made a tackle on Christian Okoye that well, I’m writing about 25 years later.   In Super Bowl XXXII, Atwater sacked Brett Favre, causing a fumble; on the ensuing drive, the Broncos kicked a field goal to go up 17-7. Atwater, a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in each of the last four years, was also a first-team selection at safety on the All-Decade Team of the ’90s.  But this is his only year holding the safety belt.

1993: LeRoy Butler, Green Bay Packers

The other first-team safety on the ’90s All-Decade Team was Butler.1 A converted cornerback, Butler brought “speed and coverage” to the safety position, in some ways making him the prototype for the modern safety.

The Packers led the NFL in Net Yards per Attempt allowed, and Butler and White were the only players to receive All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors. In ’93, Butler had six interceptions, 90 tackles, and two forced fumbles, making him a strong choice for safety of the year. And while Butler would again hold that title, another player first stole the belt.

1994-1995: Darren Woodson, Dallas Cowboys / Merton Hanks, San Francisco 49ers (tie)

Emblematic of the league at large, the two best safeties during these years were in Dallas and San Francisco. Hanks made the Pro Bowl every year from ’94 to ’97, was a Sporting News and Sports Illustrated first-team selection in ’94 and an AP, SN, and Pro Football Writers first-team choice in ’95. That year, Hanks was named Defensive Back of the Year (by the NFL Alumni Association) and of the NFC (by the NFL Players Association), and was even the Football Digest Defensive Player of the Year (Bryce Paup ran away with the award in the AP voting and just about everywhere else). The ’95 49ers led the league in ANY/A allowed, although it wasn’t all Hanks: he was one of six 49ers defenders to go to Hawaii.

Woodson was a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers, and Sporting News in both ’94 and ’95.  In ’94, Dallas led the league in ANY/A allowed and total yards allowed. We could give Woodson the award for ’94 and Hanks for ’95, but both were great players on great teams during both years who each earned a ring during this period, so no sense in splitting hairs.

We also shouldn’t forget about Cleveland’s Eric Turner, whom the AP named to its first-team in ’94; the hard-hitting safety known for his prowess against the run also led the NFL in interceptions that season. Turner was a tackling machine who starred in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Oakland, who died tragically at the age of 31 from intestinal cancer.

Hanks’ play fell off a bit in ’96, while Woodson’s reign could arguably be stretched one more season. In ’96, the Cowboys star was a first-team All-Pro by all the major services (AP, FW, SN), but so was one other guy…

1996-1998 LeRoy Butler, Green Bay Packers

The ’96 Packers are a legendary team, but it wasn’t just Brett Favre and White leading the charge.  Butler was the game’s best safety and even outshined White in some of the voting that year.  While Bruce Smith ran away with the DPOY trophy handed out by the AP, Butler was the runner up in Rick Gosselin’s view. Butler also snagged the Defensive Back of the Year (NFL Alumni Association) and of the NFC (NFLPA) awards, giving him the edge over Woodson.  The Packers easily led the NFL in ANY/A allowed, and Butler had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

In ’97, Butler was again a unanimous choice for the first line on the All-Pro team (AP, PFW, SN, SI).  Pittsburgh’s Carnell Lake received a landslide of honors that year at safety, but he actually spent more time at cornerback in 1997, switching positions in the season’s sixth game.  Lake deservedly received some DPOY buzz (the KC 101 actually did as much), but I’d consider him ineligible for this list (but certainly deserving of an honorary note).

In 1998, Butler again was a first-team choice by the AP, PFW, and SN, but this was his last year at the top of his game.  San Diego’s Rodney Harrison was also a first-team choice by all three organizations (albeit his place on the Sporting News’ team was in a three-way tie with Darren Woodson and Minnesota’s Robert Griffith), and even made it on to Dr. Z’s team.  But to be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ, so Butler was able to hold on to the belt for one more year.

1999-2000: John Lynch, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Numbers don’t quite tell the story with Lynch: over this two year period, he had “only” five interceptions, just one forced fumble, 1.5 sacks, and a combined 138 tackles. The former Stanford quarterback was a third round draft pick in ’93, but didn’t become a household name until Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks revitalized the Bucs defense. Lynch made the Pro Bowl in ’97 and each year from ’99 to ’02, but he was a unanimous (AP, PFW, SN) first-team All-Pro selection in both ’99 and ’00.

His key interception in a playoff game against Washington helped turn around that game, sending the Bucs to the NFC Championship to face the Rams.  In naming Lynch to his ’99 All-Pro team, Dr. Z noted that while Lynch had always been effective as a blitzer and a run stuffer, his coverage skills had improved in ’99.  It’s easy to remember the bad version of Lynch, making Pro Bowls in Denver on reputation, but there was certainly a period where he was the game’s best safety.  And even if he was only the third best player on his own defense, that period was ’99-’00.

Lawyer Milloy and Darren Sharper were the other first-team All-Pro safeties these years; those players would be more valuable in modern times, but the NFL at the turn of the century still valued a safety that was a thumper.

Finally, we can’t leave 2000 without a word about Pat Tillman.  We all know Tillman’s tragic story and heroic sacrifice, but it’s worth remembering that was an outstanding player on the field, too.  Dr. Z named the Cardinals strong safety to his first-team in 2000, writing:

My sleeper of 2000. While he’s not blazingly fast, Tillman is always around the ball and he’s smart in coverage.

In 2000, the Cardinals went 3-13, and ranked last in points allowed, yards allowed, and first downs allowed.  And Arizona finished in the bottom five in both NY/A and yards per carry.  The fact that Tillman was able to stand out on a defense that was otherwise easy to dismiss says a lot about his impact that year.2

2001-2002: Brian Dawkins, Philadelphia Eagles

Dawkins was a dominant safety for a six-year stretch, a great safety for a decade, and an NFL starter for 16 years. He was a unanimous (AP, PFW, SN, SI) first-team All-Pro selection in both ’01 and ’02, the star of an Eagles defense that ranked second in points allowed both seasons. Dawkins was a ferocious hitter and an intimidator, the king of defensive back blitzers, and the defensive backbone of a Philadelphia team that won with its defense. Dawkins was one of the toughest players in the league, and while he missed nine games due to injury in ’03, he was again a great player from ’04 to ’06.  Unfortunately for him, at that point, the belt was being passed around by a pair of rising stars.

An honorable mention goes to Rod Woodson, who never gets to wrap the belt around his waist. The former Steeler moved to free safety in 1999 at the age of 34, and promptly made four consecutive Pro Bowls. The last year of those years came in Oakland at age 37, where Woodson led the NFL with eight interceptions and joined Dawkins as the AP’s first-team All-Pro safety. He even had a 98-yard interception return that year, at an age over three years older than any player has ever had a 90+ yard pick six. Woodson may not have the best safety in the NFL at any one time, but no article about safeties should be written without mentioning him.

While I originally intended this to be a 3-part series, I’ve gone on for long enough today. Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!

  1. Wikipedia incorrectly cites Lott on the first-team, but that is incorrect. []
  2. Also, how was the Cardinals defense that bad, featuring Tillman, one Hall of Famer, and one borderline Hall of Famer?? []
  • sacramento gold miners

    Ronnie Lott played long enough to face the explosive father-son combination of Terry Metcalf and Eric Metcalf. In 1981, it was the rookie Lott upending the elder Metcalf in his final pro season with the Redskins. Dwight Hicks recovered the ensuing fumble and ran it for a Niners TD. In his prime years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Terry Metcalf would have likely avoided Lott’s big hit, and picked up big yardage.

    Fast forward to 1992, and it’s an aging Ronnie Lott facing Eric Metcalf in the open field, and it’s a mismatch. Metcalf takes it in for the TD, and Lott is now looking old.

    And such is life in the NFL.

    • Great stuff. Thanks for the comment.

  • I haven’t even read the rest yet, but I was thinking the entire time, “I’m going to be really sad when it turns out that Steve Atwater never gets the belt.” I loved Steve Atwater. He may have been more a linebacker than a safety, but he was really good at what he did, and he’s still one of my top five favorite players ever. I thought Lott, Woodson, and Butler would completely block him.

    So, I’m happy to see that. 🙂 I will now read the rest.

    • Hey, Atwater was great. No arguments here.

      • Well, being great doesn’t necessarily guarantee getting into an article like this. Drew Brees is unquestionably great, but would he ever have held the QB belt?

        I just didn’t think he was going to get in, so it was a pleasant surprise. 🙂

  • In response to footnote 2:

    Dave McGinnis, who was serving as head coach and defensive coordinator, is probably the easy explanation. However, it should also be noted that Aeneas Williams, while he played another four years, was already 32 years old. He was still a good player in St. Louis his first year there, so he probably was in Arizona in 2000, but I doubt he was the same guy who was making first team all-pros for four-win teams anymore by then.

    • Yeah, I thought about that. And I think Rice had a reputation for dogging it back then, too, although my memory may be faulty. But it just shows you how bad a defense can be even with a few stars.

  • Ben Fitzgerald

    How are you picking belt wearers? Opinion? AV?

    • I would have hoped my summaries would have answered that, but I guess not.

  • Richie

    I think Merton Hanks simultaneously held the belt for best celebration dance.


    • That has held up nicely over time.

  • John

    Merton Hanks? No way he should have been anywhere near the greatest safety. Eric Turner should have the 94 belt all to himself.

    Also, if you ever do this list one day for the 2010’s, Darian Stewart should win the 2016 belt.

  • John Turney

    Rodney Harrison was the best safety in 2000. All over the field (127 tackles) 8 stuffs, 6 sacks and 6 picks—think of how many safeties have done that. Just a few. The AP and PFWA and SN all missed the boat for All-Pro that year, he was HM AP and an alternate to Pro Bowl, but maybe because he was getting reputation as cheap shotter he got overlooked. But usually the All-Pro teams are a fair gauge, but in 2000 for safety, not so much.