State Your Case: Steve Atwater

Former Denver safety Steve Atwater has a complete resume that's missing only one line: Hall of Fame. He's a semifinalist for the Class of 2016, but he's been down this road before -- nominated five times, but never breaking through to the final 15. It's time to change that.

San Diego:  Steve Atwater makes an interception and returns it for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, CA on November 30, 1997.
San Diego: Steve Atwater makes an interception and returns it for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, CA on November 30, 1997.

Talk of Fame Network

There aren’t many defenders with more complete resumes than Steve Atwater. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro, a two-time Super Bowl champion and a member of the all-decade team of the 1990s.

So why isn’t he a Hall-of-Fame finalist? I didn’t say Hall of Famer. I said Hall-of-Fame finalist.

The former Denver safety last month was named as a semifinalist for the fifth straight year, but that’s been it, folks. He can’t break through to the final 15, even though some consider him one of the game’s hardest and most intimidating hitters ever.

In fact, when The Talk of Fame Network interviewed former Dallas safety Darren Woodson last month, we asked him whom he’d nominate – other than himself, of course – for induction to the Hall. Guess whom he chose?

“I thought Atwater was the guy because of the name; because of the fear that he brought to the table that changed the game,” Woodson said. “Because guys who wanted to go across the middle … they were afraid to extend themselves. So Atwater would probably be the one.”

I couldn’t agree more, except for two problems: 1) Atwater played a position (safety) that gets no love from the Hall’s 46 selectors, and 2) he only had 24 career interceptions, so there’s a perception he wasn’t a complete player.

Put them together, and what do you have? A career semifinalist.

There are only seven pure safeties in the Hall of Fame, and the last pure safety to play was Kenny Houston. He retired after the 1980 season. The last pure safety to be named was Paul Krause, and all he did was set the league record for career interceptions. He had 81, a record that still stands. Yet it took Krause 14 seasons to get to Canton.

Atwater, of course, was a different character. He grew up idolizing All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott, and his game bore plenty of similarities to the Hall of Famer. When Atwater hit, you knew it. And so did everyone else. Known as “the Smiling Assassin,” he drew nationwide recognition when he stoned Christian Okoye on Monday Night Football, not only dropping the 265-pound back with a crushing tackle but knocking him backward.

“When I came into the league,” said Woodson, “a guy that you heard about was Steve Atwater, as far as how fierce he was as a hitter. You turn on the tape and see Christian Okoye and that big hit. Atwater was the name back then.”

But he’s not now, and I don’t get it.

Of the first-teamers on the 1990’s all-decade defense, only linebacker Kevin Greene, Atwater and Leroy Butler are missing from Canton. Green, a finalist the past four years, is expected to make it to Canton this year. But Atwater and Butler? Nope. In fact, Butler’s never been a semifinalist, and this just in: He was a safety, too.

Maybe it’s that Atwater was a Denver Bronco. The Hall likes Broncos about as much as it likes pure safeties. Denver’s been to seven Super Bowls, but only four players who spent the bulk of their careers with the Broncos made it to Canton. John Elway is one of them, of course, and he’s the only Bronco with more Pro Bowl appearances than Atwater.

He had one more than Atwater.

I don't know what's keeping Steve Atwater down, but it’s wrong. He was the best at his position when he played, and isn’t that how we define Hall of Famers? I don’t care that he didn’t put up interceptions. He was a rock-solid tackler and the best at what he did. Plus, he was a team leader on a club that won consecutive Super Bowls.

In short, he did what he had to do to be considered for Canton. So let’s start the conversation. Let’s make Steve Atwater a finalist, and not because it’s time.

But because it’s past time.