Bears’ Devin Hester deserves being called best return man of all time
By Rick Telander email@example.com October 2, 2011 9:26PM
Bears punt returner Devin Hester runs back a 69-yard punt return for a second quarter touchdown during the Chicago Bears 34-29 win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday October 2, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
TWICE AS FAST
Devin Hester set an NFL record with his 11th punt return for a touchdown Sunday. He did it in almost half the returns of the previous record holder, Eric Metcalf.
Updated: November 15, 2011 10:05AM
You want to call Devin Hester the best return man of all time?
I won’t argue.
In fact, I’m there leading the charge. And I watched Gale Sayers.
And Brian Mitchell and Eric Metcalf and Dante Hall and Deion Sanders.
Why, I even saw live-action from “Bullet Bob’’ Hayes and, yes, Walter Payton, who returned 17 kicks for the Bears for a 31.7-yard average in his first two seasons.
But when Hester caught a punt on the Bears’ 31-yard line in the second quarter Sunday against the Panthers at Soldier Field, you could see that which is unique exploding.
First, Hester took two quick steps to his right, enough to get all defenders committed a wee bit, then he jab-stepped and turned left so fast that he had to put his left hand down on the ground briefly, like a downhill skier stabbing his pole into the uphill ice, just so he didn’t go completely horizontal. Then he shook off a tackle and was gone.
Sixty-nine yards and a touchdown into the northwest corner of the field. And he was just building up speed. And pizazz.
Indeed, we’ll forgive him for doing one, then two, then three somersaults through the end zone and earning an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty in the process. Why, for a moment it seemed he might continue his tumbles right down the tunnel and out to Lake Shore Drive.
“Three was the limit,’’ Hester assured all in the locker room.
Why not 11?
For that was Hester’s 11th punt return touchdown in his five-plus-year career, and it was the most in NFL history. He broke Metcalf’s record of 10, a record that took that little flier 12 years to achieve.
Now, we had said best “return man’’ at the start, and that includes kickoff returns.
So there was Hester on the Bears’ previous possession, taking the ball nine yards deep in the end zone on the kickoff, hesitating, and then carrying it out for 73 yards to set up Matt Forte’s 17-yard touchdown run.
All that in just three minutes of the second quarter on just two touches of the ball. And it helped put the Bears up 24-10 in a game that never should have been close.
So let’s do some quick math.
If the kickoff hadn’t been returned — and nobody but Hester should ever take out a ball kicked that deep — it would have been placed on the Bears’ 20. Instead Hester got it to the Panthers’ 36.
The average punt return in the league is maybe five yards, so the Jason Baker punt would have ended up, if an average returner had snagged it, at the Bears’ 36 instead of the Panthers’ end zone.
So on those two plays alone, Hester gave the Bears an extra 108 yards and a touchdown while setting up another TD.
Can you get more valuable than that?
Which brings up two more relevant questions.
Why does Hester play wide receiver at all? He’s not a great route runner or pass catcher. All he can do is get hurt. That return men don’t touch the ball very often means nothing. Getting yardage should be all that matters.
Hester said a couple years ago he wanted to get paid like a wide receiver, which he is. But how about some wide receivers wanting to get paid like great return men? What’s the prejudice? Aren’t they called special-teamers?
Second, why does anybody kick the ball to Hester?
Getting kicked to by Panthers coach Ron Rivera, said Hester, “a guy I’ve been around and he’s seen me grow as a player, it was a shock.’’
Dese coaches, ya know, sometimes dey ain’t so smart.
Then again, the Panthers tried to kick the ball out of the end zone on Hester’s 73-yard return. And when Jacobs finally punted out of bounds in the fourth quarter out of sheer Hester-phobia, he gave up maybe 10-15 yards to the Bears. How about adding that to Hester’s total?
At any rate, we’re talking about more than this game, about something transcendent, a Hall of Famer in our midst.
Hester already has been selected first-team All-Pro three times, and he has four kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career to go with those 11 punt return TDs. Oh, and he had a 92-yard kickoff TD against the Colts to open Super Bowl XLI in Miami.
Sayers was tremendous, but he broke down after seven seasons from the beating he took, because first and foremost he was a Hall of Fame running back.
Hester is not great at anything else but returning kicked balls. Which is enough.
I’d say way more than enough.