Previously I made the case for what should be a “slam-dunk” in relation to former Denver Broncos‘ great, Randy Gradishar being enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have several more of these arguments on behalf of great players who applied their craft, in an elite manner, in the Mile High City. Today’s featured should-be HOF’er is Broncos’ Ring of Famer, Steve Atwater.
A safety out of the University of Arkansas, Atwater was drafted in 1989 in the first round, 20th overall by John Beake and Dan Reeves. The “Smilin’ Assassin” as he was aptly nicknamed was known for his ability to hit anybody in an opposing jersey who had the ball with a ferocity exhibited by few others…but always with a smile. The best example of which is a shot heard ’round the NFL during a Monday Night Football contest from Mile High Stadium on Kansas City Chiefs RB, Christian Okoye. The hit created a thunderous clap heard throughout the stadium. What made the hit even more impressive is that Atwater (218 lbs) stopped Okoye (260 lbs) dead in his tracks. The rest of the NFL was put on notice that the middle of the Denver Broncos’ defensive secondary was an “Enter At Your Own Risk” zone. Paired with fellow Ring-of-Famer, Dennis Smith, the two hard hitting safeties combined to create the most feared safety tandem of their era…and maybe of all time (in deference to Atkinson and Tatum).
Now fully established as a respected safely in the NFL in only his second season, Atwater began a string of eight Pro-Bowl appearances in the next nine seasons (1990-1998). Other accolades heaped upon him were as follows: 2-time first team All-Pro selection (1991 and 1992), second team All-Pro selection in 1996, 2-time Super Bowl champion, and elected to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1990’s.
In Atwaters’ 11 seasons in the NFL, in which he spent 10 with the Broncos, he only missed nine games. For a player who threw his body around with seemingly reckless abandon, this may be the most impressive statistic of his many impressive statistics. He played 167 games and started 166 of them. In his 10 years in Denver, he he started 155 out of a possible 155 games. That ranks 7th all-time in team history. Atwater finished his career with 1180 tackles, 24 interceptions, 5 QB sacks, 8 fumble recoveries, and one touchdown. Some may think that those are not necessarily requisite numbers for entry into the hallowed halls of Canton. However, his impact was felt in the locker room as a leader and how he made the others on the defenses for which he played better. Case in point: In 1988, the Broncos ranked 27th out of 28 teams in the NFL in run defense. In Atwater’s first year, in which he started all 16 games, Denver’s defense jumped up 20 spots to finish the 1989 season 7th against the run. Atwater was now, arguably the best run-supporting safety in the game.
He also led by example. All you have to do is look at the next to last defensive play of Super Bowl XXXII agains the Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Brett Favre dropped back to pass with :36 left in regulation and threw a 22-yard seam rout down the left hash-mark to Robert Brooks. From about 5 yards away, Atwater came full throttle and took out three guys. Unfortunately, one of them was himself. He also knocked out Brooks and his teammate, Randy Hilliard. While it left Denver short in the defensive backfield for the all important 4th and 6, Greg Robinson‘s defense stood tall for one last play, giving the Broncos a 31-24 victory and their first Lombardi Trophy. Atwater also made a huge play in the second quarter of that game. He was sent on a safety blitz from the right side of the defense. He blew past left tackle, Ross Verba, hit Favre and jarred the ball loose. Defensive end, Neil Smith pounced on it and turned that into 3 more points.
There are only seven men enshrined in Canton who exclusively played the safety position for their whole careers. Those men are Jack Christiansen, Ken Houston, Paul Krause, Yale Lary, Emlen Tunnell, Larry Wilson, and Willie Wood. There are an additional three players whose careers were split between the safety and corner back spots. They are Rod Woodson, Mel Renfro, and Ronnie Lott. Since Woodson’s, Renfro’s, and Lott’s numbers were more inflated due to the fact that they played CB, I will make my argument for Atwater compared to the former seven men (all stats provide by the Pro Football HOF website):
- Jack Christiansen (Det): 8 season, 89 games, 46 Int’s, 3 TD’s, 7 fumble recoveries, & 5-time Pro-Bowler.
- Ken Houston (Hou & Wash): 14 seasons, 196 games, 10 TD’s, 21 Fumble Recoveries, 10 Pro-Bowls, & 8-time All-Pro or All-Conference selections.
- Yale Lary (Det): 11 Seasons, 133 games, 50 INT’s, 3 TD’s, 13 fumble recoveries, 9 Pro-Bowls, 5-time & All-NFL selection.
- Emlen Tunnell (NYG & GB): 14 seasons, 167 games, 79 INT’s, 9 TD’s, 9 Pro-Bowls, & 6-time All-NFL selections.
- Larry Wilson (Stl Cardinals): 13 seasons, 169 games, 52 Int’s, 7 TD’s, 8-time Pro-Bowler, & 6-time All-NFL selection.
- Willie Wood (GB): 12 seasons, 166 games, 48 INT’s, 4 TD’s, 8-time Pro-Bowler, & 6-time All-NFL selection.
The statistics not listed by the HOF’s website are tackles and sacks. Thus, Steve Atwater was a much better run supporter and punishing tackler than the aforementioned HOF safeties.
So while all seven of these great safeties belong in the hall, and I am not even arguing against them, I believe that Atwater belongs in there as well. Hopefully those who vote for hall of fame inductions will wake up from their collective slumber and do the right thing…sooner rather than later.