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Tom Brady, Jerry Rice and the Insane Stats That Will Send Devin Hester to Canton

In Part 1 of a 5-part series, Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst Jack Silverstein shows just how crazy Devin Hester’s career touchdown numbers are.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The question was dealt with swiftly.

“Who is the greatest return man in NFL history?”

“That’s easy,” said Dante Hall, who at one point was the best return man in the NFL. “Devin Hester.”

His co-hosts were... surprised? Intrigued? Provoking responses?

Hall kept it simple.

“You have the numbers, but then, do you have the impact?” Hall said. “He had both. A lot of guys have numbers. Karl Malone: numbers. But impact? So for me, do you have the numbers and the impact? The guy had both. And he had it from his days in college. So he was born to do this.”

Mr. Hall, I couldn’t agree more.

Devin Hester’s impact was felt in several ways. On an entertainment and drama level, there was the impact of everyone in the stadium stopping what they were doing to watch a kickoff or punt when #23 was back deep to return. On a gameplanning level, there were the impossible decisions coaches, kickers and punters had to make when they attempted to keep the ball out of his hands.

On a legacy level, there are the countless stories that everyone who watched him — players, coaches, executives, announcers, vendors and of course fans — will tell their children and even grandchildren.

That was Devin Hester: a man for the ages.

So let’s set aside the impact for now and look just at the other half of Dante Hall’s equation: the numbers.

I’m not sure if everyone has a good enough appreciation for just how insane Devin Hester’s return numbers are. They’re as insane as the experience of watching him. They fall into five major categories, which I will look into every day this week:

  1. TODAY: Career touchdowns
  2. TUESDAY: Season touchdowns
  3. WEDNESDAY: Touchdowns per return
  4. THURSDAY: Combined punt and kick return dominance
  5. FRIDAY: Percentage of yardage... and the myth of “the snap count problem”

We’re starting with Hester’s career numbers, including his NFL special teams touchdown record. It is, as you’ll see, one of the craziest records in NFL history. Hester didn’t sneak past the record. He annihilated it as few players have ever annihilated a record.

I’ll show you how.

Inside “The Hester Total”: Tom Brady, Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and Devin Hester’s insane career return touchdowns

When Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in Week 3 of the 2014 season, he broke his tie with his mentor Deion Sanders for the most non-offensive touchdowns in NFL history. Deion had 19 and now Hester had 20; seemingly, in the collective minds of football fans and analysts, that return became the final sign of Hester’s greatness and his Hall of Fame worthiness.

It was an incredible moment! But what is lost in his 20th touchdown was that he had already blown the doors off the actual special teams touchdown record. TD #20 made it seem as if he was only one touchdown better than 2nd place.

In reality, Hester is light years ahead of 2nd place. Because Deion isn’t 2nd place. Brian Mitchell is 2nd place. To measure just how far ahead Hester is of 2nd place, let me tell you about The Hester Total.

The Hester Total is the number of total TDs that other major career leaders would have if they were as far away from 2nd place as Hester. This would be the career touchdown leaders in:

  • Passing: Tom Brady
  • Rushing: Emmitt Smith
  • Receiving: Jerry Rice

This is what the career special teams touchdown looks like:

  1. Devin Hester — 20 (14 PR, 5 KR, 1 FG)
  2. Brian Mitchell — 13 (9 PR, 4 KR)

With those relatively small numbers, it can be hard to realize just how far removed Hester is from Brian Mitchell. So let’s translate them to other touchdown records.

Introducing, the Hester Totals.

NFL career record for passing TDs

  1. Tom Brady: 649
  2. Drew Brees: 571

TOM BRADY’S HESTER TOTAL: 878 passing touchdowns

NFL career record for rushing TDs

  1. Emmitt Smith: 164
  2. LaDainian Tomlinson: 145

EMMITT SMITH’S HESTER TOTAL: 223 rushing touchdowns

NFL career record for receiving TDs

  1. Jerry Rice: 197
  2. Randy Moss: 156

JERRY RICE’S HESTER TOTAL: 240 receiving touchdowns

One more, just for fun:

NFL career record for sacks

  1. Bruce Smith: 200
  2. Reggie White: 198

BRUCE SMITH’S HESTER TOTAL: 305 sacks

And now, a few more fun ways to slice and dice Hester’s crazy return numbers.

Devin Hester’s crazy first two seasons could statistically fight for the Hall on their own

Hester scored 12 return touchdowns across his first two seasons. If those were his career TDs, this is what the all-time special teams touchdown list would look like:

  • 13 touchdowns — Brian Mitchell
  • 12 touchdowns — Eric Metcalf, Dante Hall, 2006-2007 DEVIN HESTER
  • 11 touchdowns — Josh Cribbs
  • 9 touchdowns — Ollie Matson, Mel Gray, Deion Sanders, Darren Sproles, Cordarrelle Patterson

Dante Hall is one of the few returners who will ever be even chatted about as a possible Hall of Famer. And I mean “few” in relation to the entire history of the game. He’s one of the greatest to ever do it. Here is Hall’s entire career vs. Devin Hester’s first two years:

  • Return touchdowns: 12-12
  • Punt return touchdowns: 7-6 Hester
  • Kick return touchdowns: 6-4 Hall
  • KR/PR league leader in major 3 categories: 3-3
  • 1st team AP All Pro: 2-1 Hester
  • Total AP All Pro selections: 2-2
  • Pro Bowl: 2-2

Even higher than Hall on the possible Canton list for pure returners is Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. He was the punt returner on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team (Gale Sayers was the kick returner), and he and Hester were the two returners (no kick/punt designation) on the 100th anniversary team.

Johnson had eight career return touchdowns: six punt, two kick. Devin Hester also had eight career return touchdowns... if you remove his first two seasons.

Another returner I’ve pushed for Canton is the aforementioned Brian Mitchell, who is 2nd in NFL history in total yards behind only Jerry Rice. Again, Mitchell had 13 return touchdowns. Sayers certainly would not have been the youngest Hall of Famer ever or made the 50th anniversary team as the starting halfback after just four seasons if he wasn’t a game-breaking return man along with his rushing (and receiving), and Sayers had eight return touchdowns. That’s 21 combined, just one more than Hester.

To recap, when it comes to return touchdowns:

  • Devin Hester’s first two seasons = Dante Hall’s career
  • Devin Hester’s final nine seasons = Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s career
  • Devin Hester’s full career = almost Brian Mitchell + Gale Sayers

Eric Metcalf set the career punt return record... and then Devin Hester blew far past it

Devin Hester was an excellent kick returner, but he was the greatest punt returner by a wide margin. Looking just at touchdowns, the record was eight, set by Hall of Famer Jack Christiansen in 1956 and tied by Broncos legend Rick Upchurch in 1982. Their career games played and punt returns after reaching eight punt return touchdowns:

  • Jack Christiansen, 8 PR TD — 67 games, 82 returns
  • Rick Upchurch, 8 PR TD — 105 games, 243 returns

Eric Metcalf tied the NFL record in 1997 with a two-touchdown game for the Chargers against the Bengals, ending that day with 129 games and 219 returns. Four games later he scored another punt return touchdown to set the new NFL record:

  • Eric Metcalf, 9 PR TD — 133 games, 230 returns

Four years later, in 2001, Metcalf scored his 10th punt return touchdown to extend the record:

  • Eric Metcalf, 10 PR TD — 169 games, 317 returns

The Bears drafted Hester four years after Metcalf retired, and in his very first game, Hester scored on an 84-yard punt return. He had seven PR TDs by the end of his second season and tied Metcalf’s record in 2010 against the Vikings, the return that also broke Brian Mitchell’s record for combined kick and punt return touchdowns:

  • Devin Hester, 10 PR TD — 74 games, 173 returns

The next year in Week 4, Hester took a punt 69 yards to the house to pass Metcalf for the new NFL record:

  • Devin Hester, 11 PR TD — 80 games, 182 returns

Hester’s 20th touchdown return was his 14th career punt return, giving him this:

  • Devin Hester, 14 PR TD — 126 games, 268 returns

To recap...

Fewest returns with eight career punt return touchdowns:

  • Jack Christiansen — 82
  • DEVIN HESTER — 154
  • Desmond Howard — 186
  • Eric Metcalf — 219
  • Rick Upchurch — 243
  • Brian Mitchell — 326

Fewest returns with nine career punt return touchdowns:

  • DEVIN HESTER — 161
  • Eric Metcalf — 230
  • Brian Mitchell — 421

Fewest returns with ten career punt return touchdowns:

  • DEVIN HESTER — 173
  • Eric Metcalf — 317

Eric Metcalf’s 10 punt return touchdowns remains second best in NFL history.

Devin Hester’s career punt return average is crazy too

The career leader in yards per punt return are two Hall of Famers: Bears legend George “One Play” McAfee and Lions legend Jack Christiansen (you’re going to hear his name a few times this week in this series), both at 12.8 yards per return. Three other players are over 12, including Upchurch. Hester is tied for 8th all-time in career yards per punt return, at 11.7.

Hester is also the only player in the top 10 with 300+ career punt returns. He has 315 — next is White Shoes with 11.8 yards per return on 282 returns.

Of the 28 players in NFL history with a career punt return average of 11 yards or more (minimum 75 returns), Hester has the most career returns, and is one of only two players with 300+ returns. The other is Super Bowl hero Darrien Gordon, who was similar to Hester yet with two major exceptions:

  • Devin Hester: 315 PR, 11.7 average, 14 touchdowns — 295 KR, 24.9 average, 5 touchdowns
  • Darrien Gordon: 314 KR, 11.5 average, 6 touchdowns — 5 KR, 14.0 average, 0 touchdowns

So despite having basically the same number of returns and the same number of yards, Hester had eight more punt return touchdowns than Gordon. Eight more, AKA the punt return record before Eric Metcalf. And in a preview of Thursday’s story, you’ll also notice that Hester had 295 career kick returns compared to Gordon’s five. That’s going to be a theme: how Hester combined both kick and punt returning.

Lastly, I’ll note that Hester is one of just 10 players in NFL history with 300+ punt returns. Of those 10, he has the highest return average. (Brian Mitchell is the only player in NFL history with 400+ returns, at 463 and a 10.8 average.)

The simple truth: Devin Hester’s return touchdown record is one of the craziest records in NFL history

Now that you see how insane Hester’s return stats are in the context of other special teamers, you can better appreciate what Hester did in setting the all-time non-offensive touchdowns record by passing Deion with touchdown #20. Deion broke the record in 1997 with a 50-yard pick-six on Brett Favre for his 14th return touchdown, breaking Lemar Parrish’s record. Parrish did it on six special teams touchdowns (4 PR, 1 KR, 1 blocked FG) and seven defensive touchdowns (4 INT, 3 FR).

Deion, also with a mix of defense and special teams, pushed the record to 19. But Deion did not have the special teams record. That evolved like this:

  • Ollie Matson and Mel Gray: 9
  • Eric Metcalf: Tied and passed Matson and Gray with a two-touchdown game in 1997, and pushed the record up to 12
  • Brian Mitchell: Tied Metcalf in 2001 and passed him in 2002 for a new record of 13

So the record went from Matson and Gray with nine to Metcalf with 12 to Mitchell with 13 to Hester with 20. That’s how Hester ended up on top of a list he had no business being on top of: non-offensive touchdowns.

  1. Devin Hester — 20 (0 on defense)
  2. Deion Sanders — 19 (10 on defense)
  3. Rod Woodson — 17 (13 on defense)
  4. Ronde Barber — 14 (12 on defense)

Six players are tied for 5th with 13 touchdowns, including Mitchell, who also had zero on defense. That shows you just how special Mitchell was, and as I noted, Hester was Mitchell + Gale Sayers.

So when you think about Devin Hester’s 20 career return touchdowns and you think of his “return record,” just remember that he’s not up by one. He’s up by seven, or the equivalent of adding Steve Young’s career passing touchdowns to Tom Brady.

Coming tomorrow, a look at Devin Hester’s insane season touchdown stats, including the this trivia question: Who is the only player in NFL history with five special teams touchdowns in a season?

Answer: Devin Hester... who did it twice... with six.

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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.

Thank you to Pro Football Reference and Stathead.

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