“We had decided all week that we were not going to kick the ball to Devin Hester. That night, after debating, I thought ‘That’s really playing scared. We’re not going to do that.’ So the next morning I told the team when we were going to the game, ‘I hope we lose the toss, because if we do we’re going to kick it right down the middle to Hester and we’re going to pound him. And when they know that we’ve taken their best threat, they’re going to be finished.
“Thirteen seconds later he was in the endzone.”
Devin Hester could kill you with the ball in his hands.
The trouble was, he could kill you without the ball, too.
With the 50 voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the process of paring the massive list of 173 nominees down to 25 semifinalists around Thanksgiving followed by 15 finalists in January, they will almost certainly place Devin Hester back in the finals for the third time in his three years of eligibility. After all, since the semifinalist era began in 2004, of the 15 players who were finalists in each of their first two years of eligibility, 14 went back to the finals in the third year.
So assuming voters don’t give Hester the Gary Zimmerman treatment, he’ll be in the finals for the third time. Being a finalist is the most significant step to becoming a Pro Football Hall of Famer, not for the obvious reason (it’s better than being a semifinalist) but for the actual reason:
It is the only time the 50 voters formally discuss player cases.
Have you heard folks talk about a guy needing to get “in the room”? This is what they mean. While voters have plenty of informal conversations throughout the year, the only time they talk as a group is in January. That’s when the presenters for each player get to share all of the stats, facts and testimonials they’ve gathered and work to sway their fellow voters on the merits of a given candidate.
For the Chicago Bears, that presenter is Dan Pompei, one of the best in the business. In 2018 he helped sway the committee to elect Brian Urlacher on the first-ballot despite two first-ballotier (sure) players with him, one at his own position.
In 2020, as a member of the senior committee, Pompei successfully steered Jimbo Covert and Ed Sprinkle into Canton as two members of the special 10-man centennial senior class. And of course, this summer, Pompei’s presentation was the lynchpin to Steve “Mongo” McMichael becoming a PFHOF finalist for the class of 2024.
The final vote on Mongo will take place in January, the same time that the committee will be voting the 15 modern-era finalists down to the likely five-man class. Dan will tell his fellow voters about Devin Hester’s touchdown record, and he’ll share testimonials, like Gale Sayers, Brian Mitchell and Mel Gray all saying Hester belongs in Canton, with Deion Sanders and Dante Hall calling him the greatest returner ever.
One more element that might end up in Dan’s presentation: not just what Hester did with the ball, but what he did without it. Special teams coaches used to talk about not kicking to Devin Hester.
But nothing was as simple as “Just don’t kick it to Hester.”
Even without the ball, he could beat you in four ways.
1. Field position on squib kickoffs
It’s hard to remember this now, but Devin Hester began his NFL career on special teams as a punt returner only. The team didn’t finally let him return kicks full-time until Week 13 of his rookie year against Minnesota. In other words, his second game as a full-time kick returner was the Rams game where he ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns, and where his 225 kick return yards set a new Bears single-game record.
Thus began a massive question for opposing special teams coaches: to squib or not to squib?
Many opponents did start squibbing kickoffs against the Bears when Hester was back deep, and they found themselves with two problems, assuming they didn’t accidentally kick the ball out of bounds.
First was the Bears’ legendary collection of other returners, who special teams coach Dave Toub used to disrupt the other team’s first anti-Hester Plan B.
“Some teams would squib kick or liner kick — a deep squib or do a mortar kick — higher and shorter, or the balls would go out of bounds,” former Browns special teams coach Mike Priefer told The Athletic for a 2022 Hester feature. “We would try to kick it to one of the upbacks or an end or fullback, one of the big guys and give up 15-20 yards of field position.”
Instead of “one of the big guys,” Toub started placing returners ahead of Hester. Rashied Davis was one of the best. In 2005, he scored six return touchdowns in the Arena League and then led the Bears with a 22.8 kick return average. In the 2006 preseason he ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown...
...and was averaging just under 24 yards per kick return in 2006 before ceding the job to Hester. He was deadly as a squib kick safety valve. Here he is late in 2007 returning a short kickoff 34 yards into Vikings territory:
Same game, 2nd quarter. Vikings kick away from Hester with the squib kick, and Rashied Davis — an excellent return man himself — runs the kickoff 34 yards into Vikings territory. Bears ended the drive with a field goal.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
Check out the starting field position stat at the start pic.twitter.com/r2eINVZXdr
And here he is earlier that same season in Hester’s famed Broncos game returning a short kick 19 yards to midfield:
More squibs! 2007, the famous Broncos game where Hester scored on two returns in the 3rd quarter: a 75-yard PR and an 88-yard KR. On the first Denver kickoff after those two scores, Todd Sauerbrun squibs it away from Hester. Rashied Davis returns it 19 yards to midfield. pic.twitter.com/xwkBO2JiFr— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
The clip isn’t online, but another one of my favorites of these came in 2007 against Seattle, when the Seahawks’s short opening kickoff ended up with Garrett Wolfe who returned it 27 yards. Two plays later Cedric Benson rushed 43 yards for a touchdown.
Here’s another one from the aforementioned 2007 Vikings game. Minnesota squibs the opening kickoff but it ends up with Hester anyhow. He returns it for only 17 yards, well below his career average to that point of 24.6 yards, but because it was short the Bears started at their own 41.
“Just squib it in front of Hester!”— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
Week 15, 2007. Devin Hester entered the game with 2 KR TD and 3 PR TD, with 11 career return TDs in 29 career games. Vikings squib it on the opening kickoff. Hester gets it anyhow, returning a short kick 17 yards. Bears start at their own 41. pic.twitter.com/oe2JjoYnTM
2. Field position on bad out of bounds punts or errant out of bounds kickoffs
“Kick it into Lake Michigan.”
That was the advice that Lions head coach Rod Marinelli gave his team before facing Hester in 2007. When they did give him something to touch, he returned the short opening kickoff 20 yards and then a sideline punt 39 yards.
Bears-Lions, 2007. Lions coach Rod Marinelli says he would rather kick it into Lake Michigan than kick it to Devin Hester. Try as they might, they can't do it. Hester runs back the opening kickoff 20 yards.pic.twitter.com/dZyYPr4tXy— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
Same game, 3rd quarter, Lions have contained Hester to one KR for 20 yards and one PR for 5 yards. They punt to him.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
Lions tackle George Foster remembered that conundrum well.
Playing @ Chicago,I had a coach tell a punter to kick the ball into Lake Michigan.He was DEAD serious.Kept in play once.Hester nearly 6'd it— FOST (@GeorgeFoster72) September 19, 2014
Thus was the power of Devin Hester.
Not to mention the great Dave Toub.
In the Hester-Toub era from 2006 to 2012, the Bears starting field position was elite. We had an average starting field position of our own 32 yard line, topping out at the 34.5 in 2007. Again, this wasn’t only about Hester or Toub. Under Toub we finished 1st in average starting field position in 2007, 2008 and 2010, second in 2009 and top 5 in 2005, 2006 and 2012. Hester wasn’t here until 2006 and he wasn’t a full-time kick returner in 2008 or 2009.
In 2008, Danieal Manning led the NFL at 29.7 yards per kick return; in 2009, Johnny Knox was the NFC’s Pro Bowl returner.
And it wasn’t only about Toub, either. In 2013, the Bears still finished 10th in average starting field position while Hester led the NFL in total kick returns and kick return yards and was 6th in yards per kick return.
Starting field position is also helped tremendously by not just a dominant defense but a takeaway-generating defense. One of our best seasons of starting field position this century was 2001, when we finished 3rd in the league at 33.4. With that defense, no surprise there.
The Bears also had a number of special teams standouts who performed even without Toub. Brad Maynard was one of the league’s best punters before coming to Chicago and Robbie Gould was one of its best placekickers after leaving Chicago. Brendon Ayanbadejo became a standout special teamer on the 2012 champion Ravens, where his teammate was 2011 Bears special teams Pro Bowler Corey Graham. And of course both Hester and Toub had success after leaving the Bears.
Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) December 7, 2019
Kobe Bryant scored 60 in his final game.
And in his final NFL game, Devin Hester set a personal postseason record with 194 yards return yards, on five kick returns. See you in the Hall!#BearDown pic.twitter.com/8lzBfUj6Ca
But there was nothing like their partnership in Chicago, as the greatest returner ever was put in position by one of the greatest special teams coach ever. And that put a ton of pressure on kickers knowing that they couldn’t kick deep to Hester, they couldn’t kick it short without sending it to Rashied Davis or other speedsters, and they obviously couldn’t commit the other great sin: kicking it out of bounds.
I wish Twitter hadn’t banned Chris Kluwe because his tweets over the years of explaining the absolute tsuris of deciding to kick or not to kick to Hester were Twitter gold. But he has given plenty of interviews and in that 2022 Athletic feature, he shared the problems not only of a kickoff man trying to keep the ball away from Hester but inbounds but also of a punter trying to punt out of bounds yet also deep, something four of Kluwe’s special-teams coaches told him to do against Hester.
“Then I’ve got to have the conversation, ‘OK, if you want it to go out of bounds, it is probably only going to go 35 yards, and there is a chance it might go only 25,’” Kluwe said. “Punting is not really an exact science. This still might end up being a terrible change in field position. but the thing was, they were fine with that because it wasn’t giving up a touchdown.”
Kluwe recalled a punt in 2007 that he tried to put out of bounds without sending it into the endzone for the touchback. Hester had to run it down toward the sideline and catch it over his shoulder Willie Mays-style at the 11.
“You see him catch the ball and start to go backward, and you’re like, okay, he is going to get tackled at the 1 or 2,” Kluwe said. “This is going to be fantastic. I think there were four guys around him. He just jukes through all of them, and pretty soon, he’s going down the sideline. … No one else makes that play.”
Hester ran that back 89 yards for a touchdown.
While you’ve seen the game view (here), this fan shot reveals just how perfectly Kluwe placed that punt... and why not even perfect was perfect enough:
The short punt factor showed up in the numbers, too. In 2017, friend of WCG Jonathan Wood published a tremendous study on Da Bears Blog to quantify the impact Hester had on opposing punters. Jonathan looked at all punts in the NFL during Hester’s time in Chicago, 2006-2013, to see if teams were indeed kicking shorter against Hester. And I’ll note that Hester returned 89% of all Bears punts in that time, returned the majority in every season and returned every punt in 2010 and 2013.
The results of Jonathan’s research are unmistakeable:
- Punts were shorter to the Bears than NFL average. Jonathan: “From 2006 to 2013, the average NFL punt traveled 44.2 yards, while the average punt against the Bears went only 42.5 yards, the shortest distance in the NFL.”
- An average punt to the Bears yielded better field position than the NFL average. Jonathan: “An average punt against the Bears during Hester’s tenure yielded 36.8 yards of field position, compared to an NFL average of 39.7 in that same time span.”
- Devin Hester returned 10% of all NFL punt return touchdowns.
I mean really, look at this:
3. Blocked punts when trying to aim away from Hester
What else can go wrong when you’re punting to Devin Hester?
I mentioned the famous Broncos game above, where Hester returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown, both in the third quarter. Unlike Chris Kluwe, who didn’t always handle kickoff duties, both the punt and kick touchdowns began on the foot of Broncos punter (and ex-Bear) Todd Sauerbrun, who had talked all week about being fearless against Hester, who entered that game with nine return touchdowns, placing him tied for fourth in NFL history.
This is what the all-time special teams return touchdown list looked like entering that game — check out the games played:
- 13 touchdowns — Brian Mitchell, 223 games
- 12 touchdowns — Dante Hall, 103 games (active); Eric Metcalf, 179 games
- 9 touchdowns — Mel Gray, 169 games; Deion Sanders, 188 games; DEVIN HESTER, 26 games
“We’re not going to kick away from him,” Sauerbrun said before the game. “We respect the hell out of him, and he’s the best, but we have guys on our coverage teams that are paid to make big tackles.”
Fast forward to the third quarter, where Hester’s 75-yard punt return touchdown tied the game at 13 and his 88-yard kick return touchdown after a Denver TD tied the game at 20. The Broncos scored immediately (a 68-yard TD from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall, funny enough), and then Sauerbrun had to face Hester again. He chose the squib, leading to Rashied Davis’s 19-yard TD that I included above.
At this point, Devin Hester had outgained the Bears offense 228-160 yards.
Sauerbrun’s next chance against Hester was a kickoff early in the 4th after a Denver touchdown put the Broncos up 34-20. Sauerbrun kicked it short to Bears tight end John Gilmore. That drive ended with a sack-strip on Rex Grossman, and with 7:25 remaining, Sauerbrun lined up to punt. This time, he steered his kick away from Hester...
...and straight into Charles Tillman for the game-changing block:
What else can go wrong when you kick away from Devin Hester? Blocked punts!— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
Same Broncos game in 2007, with Bears down 34-20 in the 4th. Sauerbrun tries to punt away from Hester and instead kicks right into @peanuttillman, who gets the game-changing block pic.twitter.com/eZIVlimXQ4
Despite the announcer’s claim that “Hester didn’t have anything to do with this,” Hester quite obviously had everything to do with it, as Sauerbrun aimed the kick to the right, away from Hester, not seeing Tillman, who had snuck in from his jammer spot.
The Panthers had a similar problem the next season, attempting to kick away from Hester and accidentally missing Darrell McClover, who came in nearly unblocked on the left side and blocked Jason Baker’s punt. Brandon Lloyd returned that for a touchdown.
The next year, 2008, same deal: Panthers try to punt it away from Devin Hester and completely miss Darrell McClover off the edge. McClover gets the block, @mrblloyd recovers and runs it in for the Bears touchdown.pic.twitter.com/gV6RjX2tbr— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
4. The rabbit up Dave Toub’s sleeve: Johnny Knox
There really was no stopping Devin Hester, who returned a punt for a touchdown in his first NFL game and set a personal postseason record with 194 kick return yards on his final NFL game. In between that, he became the only player in NFL history to lead the NFL in both kick return yards and punt return yards two times each.
So yes, you can just try to not kick it to him.
But even when you try not to kick it to him, your team might not believe you.
That was the problem the Packers faced in Week 3 of 2011 when Packers punter Tim Masthay planned to punt away from Hester to the opposite sideline. Dave Toub planned for that, and sneakily sent Johnny Knox to that sideline all by himself, far away from where Hester was setting up.
The Packers punt team KNEW Masthay was punting away from Hester, but hey, shanks exist, and when they saw Hester motioning as if he was fielding the punt, they all charged him. Hester kept his head up and didn’t call fair catch, partially because the ball wasn’t actually there but also because it meant that the Packers had to stay on alert. Meanwhile Masthay’s punt sailed to the other side of the field where Knox fielded it with no one around.
You know what happened next:
So the punt team knows they're kicking away from Devin Hester and the punter punts away from Devin Hester.— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
But Devin Hester pretends it's coming to him, so this happens. Johnny Knox! Salute to Dave Toub. Put that flag away, ref! @WCGridiron pic.twitter.com/6gB4j0Oodq
Unfortunately, a ticky-tack holding call against soon-to-be special teams Pro Bowler Corey Graham at the start of the play negated a touchdown on what was an absolute stroke of genius from Toub and pulled off perfectly by Knox and Hester. The whole play works simply because of Hester’s threat.
Here’s Pat Mannelly explaining:
Here is @PatrickMannelly explaining the genius play design from Dave Toub on the famous Devin Hester - Johnny Knox fake punt return from 2011. Toub told @AdamHoge he still has the play in the gameplan. Hmmmmmm...#BearTFDown— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) February 7, 2023
There’s just nothing that anyone could do with Devin Hester, a true game-changer of the highest order, a man who changed The Game and also changed games, even the biggest ones.
Which brings us back to Tony Dungy.
After Hester scored to start Super Bowl XLI, Dungy accepted reality, that his initial plan was the right one, and that the Colts would do everything in their power to kick the ball away from Hester. He had one return the rest of the game — three yards on a punt — and despite risking the loss in field position, the Colts’ plan of kicking away from Hester likely won them the game.
Yes, neutralizing a rookie returner became the key decision that a Hall of Fame coach made to win a Super Bowl.
Now that’s special.
Bears fans won’t like to see this but in Super Bowl XLI, after Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the Colts kicked away from Hester the rest of the game and risked giving us great field position, a gamble that arguably won them the game. @WCGridiron pic.twitter.com/wslTGe3FOJ— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) October 13, 2023
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, a Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst with the Not In the Hall of Fame Committee, a contributor to PFHOF voter Clark Judge’s regular “Judge & Jury” series and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.
A look at what’s next for potential Bears Hall of Famers: