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Devin Hester’s insane 2006 and 2007 were crazier than you realize — as was 2010

In Part 2 of a 5-part series, Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst Jack Silverstein shows just how crazy Devin Hester’s 2006 and 2007 were, as he did something no one else in NFL history has done... twice.

Broncos-Bears Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

“What’s this guy going to do now, Mr. Sauerbrun? I’ve got some suggestions, and none of them involve getting the ball anywhere near Devin Hester.”

— The broadcast on Nov. 25, 2007 after Devin Hester’s two return touchdowns against the Broncos


You know all about Devin Hester’s crazy 2006 and 2007.

And I’m here to tell you: they’re even crazier than you realize. They are, by a long shot, the two greatest return seasons in NFL history.

But I’m also here to tell you that Hester’s 2010 and 2011 are the types of seasons that other all-time great returners count as their greatest seasons. Hester’s 2013 and 2014 were record-setters too.

We’ll get to all of those in part 2 of my five-part series on the insane stats that will land Devin Hester in Canton:

  1. YESTERDAY: Career touchdowns
  2. TODAY: 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”

Devin Hester did something that no one in NFL history has done... and did it twice

Yesterday I compared Devin Hester’s 2006 and 2007 to Dante Hall’s entire career. When you can put two seasons against a great career like Hall’s, you know those seasons are historic. But the true nature of that history isn’t clear until you start looking at how Hester’s best seasons compared to the best seasons of other returners.

To measure this, I compared Hester to 22 of the other most prolific scoring returners in NFL history on both the punt and kickoff side. Here are Hester’s 2006 and 2007 return touchdowns:

  • 2006: six total — 3 punt, 2 kickoff, 1 field goal
  • 2007: six total — 4 punt, 2 kickoff

That’s six return touchdowns. Twice. No one else has done it at all. Or even gotten to five.

Most return touchdowns in a season:

  • 6 — Devin Hester, 2006; Devin Hester, 2007
  • 5 — none
  • 4 — 10 players, spanning Jack Christiansen & Emlen Tunnell in 1951 to Patrick Peterson in 2011

If you add the postseason, two players get to five! Desmond Howard had three punt return touchdowns in 1996 and added one in the playoffs and his famous kickoff return touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI, while Dante Hall had four in the 2003 regular season and one in the playoffs.

But if you include the playoffs, Hester gets to seven with Super Bowl XLI.

Most return touchdowns in a season including postseason

  • 7 — Devin Hester, 2006 (almost eight!)
  • 6 — Devin Hester, 2007
  • 5 — Desmond Howard, 1996; Dante Hall, 2003

Ken Houston, Brian Mitchell, Deion Sanders, Eric Metcalf, Gale Sayers: how to talk about the many NFL records of Devin Hester

One of the tricky elements of talking about Hester’s records is that you can categorize them in multiple ways. During his career, announcers and media members did just that. Most commonly was “the kick return record” — that is what many media members called the combined kick and punt return record.

That term is confusing, since it includes punts, but sometimes announcers made it even more confusing. In 2010, when Hester returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown against the Vikings, the broadcast announced it like this: “There’s the National Football League record: 14 career returns for touchdowns!”

Of course four years later, Hester’s 20th return touchdown was called “the return record” or “the non-offensive touchdown record.” Additionally, because Hester was the only player on the kick-punt return leaderboard who also had a touchdown on a missed field goal return, his special teams number was one more than his kick-punt record.

That missed field goal factored into his first major NFL record back in 2006, which was broadcast in a way that many fans probably didn’t understand. I know I didn’t. In Hester’s famous two-touchdown game against the Rams, the broadcast introduced Hester at the start of the game with a graphic noting that he had four return touchdowns, one shy of the NFL record, set by Ken Houston in 1971.

When Hester returned a kick for a touchdown in the 1st quarter, the broadcast called it “a record 5th return for a touchdown ... tying the National Football League record set 35 years ago.” They referred to his second return as “an NFL record 6th return of the year.”

What many fans probably didn’t realize — again, I didn’t — was that Ken Houston’s 1971 “return record” was all on defense: four interceptions and one fumble return. Fans probably thought that the “return record” was on kick and punt returns.

But no: Hester’s famed “record-tying” and “record-setting” returns against the Rams in 2006 were not of the Brian Mitchell variety, but of the Deion Sanders variety: all non-offensive returns.

Hester’s first touchdown against the Rams was the ACTUAL special teams record-breaker, as the previous record for special teams returns in a season was four, held by a number of players starting with Christiansen and Tunnell in 1951 and including two Bears: Gale Sayers in 1967 (3 KR, 1 PR) and Cecil Turner in 1970, who holds the NFL record for kick returns in a season with four.

So if you want to talk about Devin Hester’s NFL touchdown records, here are the career records:

  • Return touchdowns AKA non-offensive touchdowns: 20
  • Special teams touchdowns: 20
  • Kick-punt return touchdowns: 19
  • Punt return touchdowns: 14

...and here are the season marks:

  • Return touchdowns AKA non-offensive touchdowns: 6 (2006 and 2007)
  • Special teams touchdowns: 6 (2006 and 2007)
  • Kick-punt return touchdowns: 6 (2007)
  • Punt return touchdowns: 4 (2007, tied with three others)

Moving on from 2006 and 2007, Devin Hester’s “other” seasons were historic too

So that’s how historic Hester’s best seasons were: they were comparing him to defensive players. Now let’s look at his (comparably) non-historic seasons. Here are all of Hester’s seasons with return touchdowns:

  • 2006: 6 (3 punt, 2 kickoff, 1 missed field goal)
  • 2007: 6 (4 punt, 2 kickoff)
  • 2010: 3 (all punt)
  • 2011: 3 (2 punt, 1 kickoff)
  • 2013: 1 (punt)
  • 2014: 1 (punt)

That gives Hester a return touchdown in six seasons, and at least two return touchdowns in four seasons. That might not sound like much, but it puts Hester in first place for the most seasons with 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 special teams TDs. He’s the only player in NFL history to score five special teams touchdowns in a season and he did it twice, but with six each time.

Brian Mitchell has the record with the most seasons with at least one special teams touchdown, with Hester tied for fifth. Here’s a full look at these lists:

  • Most seasons with at least 1 special teams touchdown: Brian Mitchell, 9; three players with 7; six players with 6 including DEVIN HESTER
  • Most seasons with 2+ special teams TDs: DEVIN HESTER and Brian Mitchell with 4
  • Most seasons with 3+ special teams TDs: DEVIN HESTER with 4
  • Most seasons with 4+ special teams TDs: DEVIN HESTER with 2
  • Most seasons with 5+ special teams TDs: DEVIN HESTER with 2
  • Most seasons with 6+ special teams TDs: DEVIN HESTER with 2
  • Most seasons with 5+ special teams TDs, including playoffs: DEVIN HESTER with 2
  • Most seasons with 6+ special teams TDs, including playoffs: DEVIN HESTER with 2
  • Most seasons with 7+ special teams TDs, including playoffs: DEVIN HESTER with 1

We haven’t even broken out punt return yet, where Hester is also the GOAT. He holds up here too, with his four in 2007 tied for the NFL record. The full rundown:

  • Most seasons with 1+ punt return TDs: Brian Mitchell with 7; DEVIN HESTER and Eric Metcalf with 6
  • Most seasons with 2+ punt return TDs: DEVIN HESTER with 4
  • Most seasons with 3+ punt return TDs: DEVIN HESTER with 3
  • Most seasons with 4+ punt return TDs: DEVIN HESTER and three others with 1, NFL record

In fact, Hester’s crazy 2010 would be a career year for most returners

Yesterday I looked at Devin Hester’s career punt return average and how many more returns he has than his fellow high yardage punt returners. The same is true for single seasons. According to Pro Football Reference, the qualifying number for single-season punt returns is 1.25 punt returns per your team’s total games that year. That makes Christiansen the all-time single-season leader in punt return average, at 21.5 yards per return in 1952. He returned only 15 punts, but in 11 games.

Four other players had seasons at 20+ yards per punt return. Devin Hester’s highest season ranks 12th at 17.1 yards per return. He didn’t do it in 2006. And he didn’t do it in 2007.

He did it in 2010! He has one of 14 qualifying seasons of 17+ yards per return, and of those, he is the only one with 30 or more returns. He had 33. Of the 25 qualifying seasons of 16+ yards per return, Hester and Jermaine Lewis in 2000 are the only ones with 30+ returns. (Lewis had 36 returns.)

Devin Hester’s post-bye big returns in 2010

Hester was not the Bears’ main kick returner in 2010; that job went to 2008 Pro Bowl returner Danieal Manning, who led the NFL in 2008 at 29.7 yards per kick return. In 2010, Manning returned 33 kicks for 24.7 yards per return. Hester returned just 12 kicks, so eight shy of the 20 he would have needed to qualify for the leaderboard. But at 35.6 yards per kick return, Hester led the NFL in yards per kick return for all returners with 10+ returns.

He also didn’t return a kick that year until Week 10, meaning all 12 of his returns were across the final eight games of the season. In the final five weeks of the season, Hester was other-worldly: a 35.6 return average on seven kickoffs and a 24.3 return average on eight punts with a touchdown.

Indeed, after starting the 2010 season 4-3, the Bears went 7-2 after the bye to win the NFC North. Hester’s returns included:

  • Week 10 win vs. Vikings: 32-yard kick return, 68-yard kick return
  • Week 11 win vs. Dolphins: 24-yard punt return
  • Week 12 win vs. Eagles: 46-yard kick return
  • Week 13 win vs. Lions: 30-yard punt return
  • Week 14 loss to Patriots: 61-yard kick return
  • Week 15 win vs. Vikings: 79-yard kick return, 64-yard punt return touchdown
  • Week 16 win vs. Jets: 38-yard punt return, 40-yard kick return

Those two kick returns against the Vikings in Week 10, for a total of 100 yards, were Devin Hester’s first kick returns since Week 1 of 2009. He got right back to it like he never left. What might have been!

To recap, Devin Hester’s 2010:

  • 17.1 yards per punt return — 1st in NFL
  • 35.6 yards per kick return — 1st in NFL had he qualified
  • 3 punt return touchdowns — 1st in NFL
  • 3 total special teams touchdowns — 1st in NFL
  • One of three players in NFL history to return 10+ kicks and 10+ punts in a season, with 15+ yards per punt return and 30+ yards per kick return, joining the great Buddy Young in 1951 and Spec Sanders in 1946. (Okay okay, that’s not a real stat. But it’s fun!)

The next year, 2011, Hester led the NFL again at 16.2 yards per return. Two years later in 2013, he led the NFL... in total kick returns and total kick return yards. At just 18 punt returns he didn’t qualify for the punt return average list, but his 14.2 yards per punt return would have been third.

In 2014 with the Falcons, Hester again led the NFL in kick returns and kick return yards, and again did not qualify for the punt return average due to again only returning 18 punts. But he returned those for 13.3 yards per return, which was higher than league-leader Darren Sproles. In a 16-game season, 1.25 returns per game was 20 punt returns. In 2013 and 2014, when he led the NFL in kick return yards, Devin Hester missed the punt return qualification by two returns in each year.

He would not have led the league in 2014, since dropping the return qualification number even to 15 instead of 20 would add a player above Hester. But in those two years when Hester led the NFL in kick return yards, he also had one of the NFL’s best punt return averages.

Devin Hester’s 2006 and 2007 were stratospheric — while his other seasons were merely... outstanding

All this is to say that the legacy of many all-time great returners is two seasons, maybe three. Four great return seasons puts you in the upper reaches of NFL history. Devin Hester had six great return seasons, including the two greatest seasons all-time.

There was nothing like him as a returner...

...and few like him at any other position, either.

Coming tomorrow, a look at Devin Hester’s insane touchdowns per return, and why he is the Halley’s Comet of return man.

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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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