Devin Hester holds career records for punt-return touchdowns and total kick-return touchdowns. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Would you put Devin Hester in the Hall of Fame?
Updated: January 23, 2012 3:45AM
Devin Hester is the most prolific kick returner in NFL history. Four games into his sixth season, he already holds career records for punt-return touchdowns (11) and total kick-return touchdowns (15).
Is that enough to earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
No one has made the Hall of Fame as a return specialist. The three special-teams players in the Hall are kickers, and only Jan Stenerud was exclusively a specialist. Lou Groza was an all-NFL tackle, and George Blanda threw 236 touchdown passes, 21st on the all-time list.
(Hester has modest, though not insignificant, numbers as a wide receiver — 168 receptions, 13.1 yards per catch and 12 touchdowns. But his Hall candidacy is based almost entirely on his return-game excellence.)
Hester has needed fewer than six seasons to break two career records. Even Jerry Rice needed nearly eight seasons to break the all-time record for touchdown catches. But is Hester Hall of Fame worthy? Here are some points to consider:
◆ Though he’s just ahead of Brian Mitchell on the all-time list for career kick-return touchdowns (15-13) and Eric Metcalf for punt-return touchdowns (11-10), his impact is significantly greater. Hester has 11 touchdowns on 182 punt returns (one touchdown for every 17 returns) and 15 touchdowns on 303 total returns (one for every 20).
Metcalf needed 348 punt returns to get his 10 touchdowns (1 for every 35). Mitchell needed 986 returns to get his 13 touchdowns (one for every 72).
◆ Hester’s impact goes beyond those numbers. He also scored on a 108-yard field-goal return as a rookie in 2006. His 96-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI stands as the only time in Super Bowl history that the opening kickoff has been returned for a score.
◆ Then there are the intangible benefits: Besides all the yards the Bears gain when opponents try to avoid Hester, his fake that led to Johnny Knox’s 89-yard punt return against the Packers (though it was nullified by an inconsequential penalty) was a perfect illustration of the respect and fear opponents have for Hester. It’s unlikely any other returner would have pulled off that trick play.
◆ Hester’s current hot streak on returns has come when every opponent is geared to minimize his impact. Most returners who make a Hester-like big splash in the NFL — such as Dante Hall, Tamarick Vanover, Ron Brown or Cecil Turner — don’t even come close to sustaining it. Hester had 13 returns for touchdowns in his first two seasons. After a two-year lull, he has not only added four punt-return touchdowns in his last 20 games, but he has averaging 31.2 yards on his last 20 kickoff returns, with six of 40 yards or more.
◆ Though Hester’s impact has been monumental, he still has averaged fewer than four special-teams touches per game in his career. He has scored a return touchdown in only 14 games (the Bears are 10-4 in those games).
And many, if not most, players with his ability make bigger contributions on offense or defense. Hester is a little like Dennis Rodman, whose record-setting rebounding prowess was denigrated by critics who claimed that’s all he really cared about.
Then again, Rodman is in the basketball Hall of Fame because he not only was a great rebounder, but a winner. For Hester to get there on kick returns, he’ll have to win a couple of Super Bowl rings, or put the records so far out of reach that his greatness is impossible to ignore.
HESTER VS. SAYERS
Hester might be the greatest kick returner in NFL history, but some longtime Bears fans still consider Gale Sayers the best kick returner they’ve seen. The only difference between the two is that Sayers seemed to do it without blockers.
Sayers was on a pace even greater than Hester’s in his first three seasons in the NFL. He had six touchdowns on kickoffs and two on punts on his first 82 returns. That’s one touchdown for every 10.3 returns.
Sayers averaged 27.0 yards on 17 kickoff returns in 1968, including a 46-yarder to go with a team-record 205 rushing yards in a 13-10 victory over the Packers. A week later, he suffered a knee injury against the 49ers. Sayers played in only 18 more games and didn’t return another punt, though he averaged 24.2 yards on 14 kickoff returns.
He still is the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff-return average with 30.6 yards per return. And his punt-return average (14.5 yards on 14 returns) would be No. 1 if he had enough to qualify.