Bobby Dillon and the Packers’ Remarkable Lineage at Safety

100 years of team history has produced numerous great safeties

Bobby Dillon (Image From T.C.G. Football Card, 1957. Purchased by PackersHistory.com, 2020)

Congratulations to Bobby Dillon’s family for Bobby finally getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — 50 years late.

This news, announced January 15, 2020, came before the Green Bay Packers’ impending matchup with the San Francisco 49ers with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

It’s saddening that Dillon, the Packers’ legendary safety, passed away just months before his “Hall Call” but the 2019 Packers have honored him nicely.

Dillon, along with Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg, passed away before this season started. He will join those two legends in the Hall of Fame this summer.

The team responded to their collective passings by going 13-3 and winning the NFC North.

They have a chance to honor these legends even further if they win on Sunday.

Safety play goes a long way in deciding NFL football games, especially in the playoffs; we consider it the hardest position on the field. It’s a position where your impact, positively or negatively, can determine the outcome of a game — even in just a handful of plays.

Safeties are the last line of defense for every defense, but in today’s NFL they are required to possess the skills to play at every level. They have to be able to run with wide receivers, tackle like linebackers, and rush the passer to be truly effective. No other position in football requires such a diverse skill-set.

Although this position has changed over the last few decades, Bobby Dillon was still the best athlete on his 1950s Packers teams. Billy Howtown and Jim Ringo might have something to say about that, but we’re sticking with what we said.

And we here at PackersHistory.com have long argued that Bobby Dillon deserved to be in The Hall.

Despite having only one eye, he is still the team’s all-time leader in interceptions (52).

His false eye once popped out on the football field, too, just to be popped back in once found. Play on. It was the ’50s; there was no place for the meek on the football field.

Dillon was an incredibly rare athlete and he’s now the only Packer to play his entire career in the 1950s and end up enshrined in Canton. Now that’s an honor.

Vince Lombardi referred to him as the best defensive back in all of football when he came to coach Green Bay. Lombardi even talked him into playing one more season. Because Dillon listened, he finally got to be a part of a winning season professionally (7-5 in 1959).

He was a star at Texas in college before suiting up for the Packers. As the NFL evolved into a more pass-happy league, he battled famous receivers like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Tom Fears, and Raymond Berry. Often times he’d win the battles.

To this day, he’s the most prolific “ballhawk” in Packers history. Four times he was named First Team All-Pro. Again, he should have been in The Hall long ago.

From 1953-58 he averaged eight interceptions per season. That’s over 10 per year if averaged out over a 16 game season.

A six year stretch of being that dominant at taking the ball away. Unprecedented and stunning. And he retired at the age of 29… he easily could have played at an elite level for another three or four years.

Best season: 1957, nine interceptions and one touchdown (that’s 12 over a 16 game season).

But Dillon wasn’t the first notable safety in team history.

Don Hutson, the most statistically dominant player in NFL history, was not only a star receiver, but also an effective and tough safety during his years with The Pack. Two-way star players in the NFL, it’s mind-boggling to think about.

He is officially credited with 30 interceptions at the safety position (he had more than that), playing in an era when throwing became more common… partially because of him and his own aerial success. Hutson rubbed off on all of his peers.

Joe Laws was the other “first” talented safety the Packers employed, a teammate of Hutson for years. Together they formed the first notable safety tandem in team history. From 1942-1945 Laws intercepted at least three passes per season.

Even the versatile tailback/quarterback Irv Comp played safety at a high level for this franchise in the 1940s, intercepting 10 passes in 1943. In the 1950s, another less heralded safety roamed the Packers’ defensive backfield. John Symank was that man, tallying a career high nine interceptions in 1957.

He wasn’t in Green Bay for long, but Hall of Fame safety Emlen Tunnell played his final three seasons of his illustrious career with the Packers. The longtime New York Giant deserves mention on this all-time journey through the safety position in Green Bay.

But for all of their success, Dillon was the first safety that this franchise truly took pride in. That remains true.

Following Dillon’s tenure in Green Bay was an incredible era of success for the Packers. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Vince Lombardi transformed the once hapless team into a dynasty; one safety from that squad is remembered as one of the best in football history.

Willie Wood was that team’s premier starting safety. He made his mark on the Packers and the NFL and he is, to this day, the most physically gifted and celebrated safety in team history.

Five times First Team All-Pro, eight Pro Bowls, five rings, 48 interceptions (50 including postseason). What a resume. It’s flawless.

Wood’s impact on the team went far beyond his play on the field. He was the first great black safety in team history that played the majority of his career in Green Bay; his play along with fellow black defenders Herb Adderley, Willie Wood and Dave Robinson paved the way for a dynasty and a new NFL.

His interception in Super Bowl I helped seal a Packers victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Best season: 1962, nine interceptions (that’s likely at least 10 over a 16 game season).

Wood’s partner was much less celebrated, but still deserves recognition. Hank Gremminger was a bigger playmaker than most realize. Many fans wouldn’t think of him when listing the great Packers of the 1960s, but his statistics demand respect.

Three times Gremminger intercepted at least five passes in a season. What’s interesting is that Gremminger also played with Dillon. Yes, he was the other half of the Packers’ safety duo with two Hall of Fame safeties (Dillon and Wood).

That’s a pretty good indictment of talent for a player. To be trusted to play along not one, but two players that special is rare.

The two decades following Lombardi’s Packers were thin at many positions, but Green Bay still employed numerous fascinating safeties.

Johnnie Gray was a consistent free safety for the Packers in the middle of The Lean Years in Green Bay. In fact, he intercepted 22 passes and recovered 22 fumbles in his career.

One of Gray’s younger teammates was Mark Murphy, a strong safety known for being one of the biggest hitters in team history. However like Gray, Murphy didn’t see much success with the team as a whole.

Free safety Chuck Cecil was Murphy’s teammate for four years and received a Pro Bowl nod in 1992, in his final year with the Packers.

Sure, these three players were all memorable in their own way, but they all were in the shadow of Wood who came before and the man that followed them.

As the 1990s unfolded, greatness finally returned to the once-proud position in the form of a leader named LeRoy Butler.

Like Dillon, who helped the safety position evolve as a home for “ballhawks”, Butler also helped shift the narrative as to what the safety position could be.

Butler dominated at the line of scrimmage and rushing the passer with more success than any safety in NFL history at the time. The position evolved. He was like a blitzing linebacker that could also play the ball in the air when needed.

His biggest impact on the league was that he showed defensive coaches throughout the NFL that safeties could impact offenses at all three levels: downfield, at the line of scrimmage and in the offense’s backfield sacking the quarterback.

That is his legacy.

Best season: 1996, 5 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 6.5 sacks, 1 forced-fumble, two fumble recoveries, 87 tackles.

Safeties just can’t be more versatile and impactful than that.

Also like Dillon, Butler has been disrespected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We have an iron-clad argument as to why he should be in.

Hopefully Butler gets in quicker than Dillon.

Butler didn’t have as many interceptions as Dillon, true, but he was overall more impactful as a Packer. He helped lead the Packers to a Super Bowl XXXI victory, registering a sack in the game.

When it comes to Green Bay safeties all-time, three names rise above the rest: Wood, Butler, and Dillon. Wood and Butler dominated in championship settings and helped increase the overall legacy of Titletown USA — so they get the nod for best two in franchise history.

For a couple years, Butler had a peer at the safety position in Green Bay. In 1996, Eugene Robinson came to town to join Butler in the defensive backfield. He was there for only two years, but he more than made the most of it. His six interception season (eight including the postseason) still hasn’t been forgotten in Green Bay.

After Butler retired, the team placed its safety hopes in Darren Sharper.

Let’s get this out of the way: Sharper is a disgraced and disgraceful guy. It’s a shame that he threw away his legacy as a Packer and elite NFL player. But to be clear, it is a much larger shame what he did to those women. We won’t get into it, but his actions were despicable and the pain he caused far outweighs the frustration we feel about not being able to celebrate his legacy.

With that acknowledged, he was a truly great player out on the field. We believe he’d make it into the Hall of Fame had he not been arrested for his crimes. Yes, we know the voters aren’t supposed to consider off the field issues, but it’s good he’s not in The Hall.

Even so, few players have ever been so good at returning interceptions for touchdowns in the history of football. He really was an exciting player to watch.

Sharper went to Minnesota after being in Green Bay, like many Packers have done. It’s an odd trend, but that’s for another day.

In 2005, as a rookie starter, Nick Collins came onto the scene and, like Wood and Butler, helped lead the Packers to a modern day championship. His interception and subsequent touchdown in Super Bowl XLV remains one of the best moments in Green Bay postseason history.

He had an absolute knack for finding the end zone and his complete understanding of the defense was evident.

We aren’t being hyperbolic when we say that Collins was on a Hall of Fame trajectory at the time of his career-ending neck injury.

It was the most catastrophic injury, in terms of what we the fans were robbed of, since Sterling Sharpe’s neck injury in 1994.

We firmly believe that the Packers would have won at least one more Super Bowl from 2011-2016, perhaps another, if they had still had Collins on the team. He had three Pro Bowl nods under his belt at the time of his retirement.

Collins was that impactful for the Packers. Some of the moments that haunt this franchise the most wouldn’t have happened if he was in control of the defense on those plays. That’s nearly fact.

Best season: 2008, 7 interceptions, 3 touchdowns, 15 passes defended, 1 forced-fumble, 72 tackles.

In recent years the Packers struggled to find consistency at the safety position. The front office thought they had the answer on duo Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnnett.

However, their inconsistency and repeated letdowns made it known they weren’t ever going to become the duo the Packers needed.

Before the 2019 season, the team brought in Adrian Amos as a free agent and drafted Darnell Savage. They appear to actually be the team’s dream safety duo for the foreseeable future. They have the potential to be the best sustained safety duo since Wood and Grimminger.

Will they put up the stats, individual awards and championships of that duo? Highly, highly unlikely, but still it’s worth mentioning. Amos has obvious poise and strong fundamentals when it comes to taking angles and making tackles. Savage is clearly bright, as he’s still a rookie, and boasts elite speed.

We’ll see what Amos and Savage can do against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Their performance will go a long way in determining the success of the Packers in this postseason run.

Defending tight end George Kittle is paramount to the Packers defeating the 49ers. Green Bay’s two safeties will be tasked with that all day on Sunday.

We’ll see if they can live up to the lofty history at the position.

If a Packers safety, or cornerback for that matter, ever eclipses Bobby Dillon’s career interception total, they’ll surely end up in the Hall of Fame themselves someday.

Dillon will forever be the man in which all other “ballhawks” in team history will be judged. His per-game individual success will likely never be surpassed in Packers History. The safety position in Green Bay has been home to many fan-favorite players as well as some of the most impactful defensive players of all-time.

Hopefully Green Bay’s safeties leave their mark against the 49ers on Sunday evening! It has a chance to be the next chapter of this position’s unique history for this franchise.

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