As I’ve said before, most of the players on our Forgotten Falcon list were good, fun or both, but rarely did they spend more than a decade with Atlanta and make their mark on the team’s record books in multiple categories. If they did, they’d be remembered fondly, right?
Things get trickier the further back you go in Falcons franchise history, though, and pre-1990s there are a ton of guys who just aren’t remembered as well as they should be. Players like Claude Humphrey made it to the Hall of Fame and are properly recognized for their greatness, while Steve Bartkowski, William Andrews, Alfred Jenkins and other luminaries of the 70s and 80s played more visible positions and are probably at least familiar to newer fans. Bobby Butler, however, might not be.
That’s a shame, because Butler is one of a small handful of quality corners the Falcons had during a very crummy decade, and a player who served as a capable starter for nine seasons and a capable reserve for three more. He didn’t have the flashiness and playmaking ability of Deion Sanders and wasn’t the stupendous talent Rolland Lawrence was at the height of his powers, but for a decade Butler was one of the few players preventing opposing quarterbacks from shredding the Falcons pass defense to ribbons, and no corner in franchise history has played as many games for this team as he did.
Let’s talk more about his career and remember why he’s worthy of...well, being remembered.
Time in Atlanta: 1981-1992
Statistics as a Falcon: 169 games, 101 starts, 27 interceptions, 3 defensive touchdowns, 9 fumble recoveries
What he’s best known for: Being the longest-tenured cornerback in team history and one of the few quality starters at corner the Falcons had in the 1980s
The Falcons needed Bobby Butler. Franchise great Rolland Lawrence hung up his cleats after the 1980 season, where he was typically solid except for a fateful moment when Drew Pearson scored the decisive touchdown while Lawrence was covering him in Atlanta’s devastating loss to the Cowboys in the playoffs, and the team had a huge hole opposite veteran Kenny Johnson at corner. The team addressed that need in the first round with the 25th overall pick by selecting Butler, a polished corner out of Florida State the Falcons felt could start right away. The team was later criticized for zeroing in on cornerback as a need and passing up the likes of Mike Singletary, Howie Long, and Cris Collinsworth available, but as we know well, you can look at any Atlanta draft and see where they passed up great players. Butler filled a need, but more importantly, he was a good player.
He was thrown right into the fire, and would quickly prove to be one of the only impactful draft picks from an awful 1981 draft class, the other being Notre Dame guard and longtime starter John Scully. His rookie season may have been his finest effort statistically, as he picked off five passes and started all 16 games for Atlanta. He would’ve gotten a sixth interception had he not tripped over a receiver while picking a pass against the Rams and been hit with a ticky-tack pass interference call, but coach Leeman Bennett singled him out for praise after the season and his future was clearly bright.
If you take a guy in the first round, you hope he’s great, but you also hope he plays a lot for you. While injuries would take a bite out of a couple of seasons and the strike limited everyone to 9 games in 1982, Butler would start every game he played in for the first 8 seasons of his career, managing 24 interceptions over that span. He would continue his career as a part-time starter in 1989 and 1990, when he started a combined 17 games, and finish up as a reserve in 1991 and 1992, when he got three spot starts. His reliability and availability means he’s still third among all defenders in team history in terms of games played, surpassed only by the great Jessie Tuggle and the always steady Jonathan Babineaux.
That’s 12 seasons as a corner for Atlanta, and in many of those seasons, Butler was easily the best player the Falcons had at the position. Once Kenny Johnson left following the 1984 season, Butler had to prop up the likes of Wendell Cason, David Croudip, and other uninspiring players for years, with only the arrival of Deion Sanders and a couple of fine seasons from Scott Case at corner breaking that stretch up. He was never an elite player, but he was a steady one who toiled for a lot of forgettable defenses and forgettable teams.
The Falcons only had a winning record twice in his entire career, and one of those years was the strike-shortened 1982 season, when they went 5-4. To put that grim stretch in perspective, Matt Ryan has played one more season than Butler and has seven winning seasons in 13 years. The 1980s were not a great time for this team, and Butler was one of the few players who consistently delivered for the team throughout that decade.
In some ways, Butler’s career reminds you of (and some people are not going to like this) of Desmond Trufant, another late first round pick at cornerback and a long-term starter who generally was one of the team’s best players in the secondary but rarely got much in the way of recognition for it. The biggest difference is that Butler never made a Pro Bowl (Trufant went once), he picked passes a lot more frequently, and Butler played for the Falcons a lot longer, as he is actually 9th all-time in games played for the franchise. Butler’s also 6th in franchise history for interceptions and is still on the leaderboard for fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns, a product of that longevity and fine play.
In the years since his career wrapped up, Butler is probably best known for the Kids & Pros organization he co-founded with former Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry starting in 2002. The organization aims to teach “football fundamental skills and character lessons” for kids from ages 7-13, and per their website, they’ve done so for 63,000 young athletes since the organization’s inception. In addition, you may have seen Butler’s son Brice Butler play in the league, as he was a seventh round pick at wide receiver who spent six seasons in the NFL for the Raiders, Cowboys and Dolphins.
All of that strong play and commitment to teaching the next generation of players makes Butler well worth remembering. The Falcons were well-known throughout the first 30-plus years of their history for letting talent leave or outright trading them away, and it was fairly rare for good players to tolerate the losing and keep going for Atlanta for a decade-plus in that environment. Butler proved to be well worth the first round pick the Falcons invested in him and put together one of the finest cornerback careers—not to mention the longest—in Atlanta history.