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The Halley’s Comet of returners: Devin Hester had the most complete returner career in NFL history

In Part 3 of a 5-part series, Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst Jack Silverstein dives into Devin Hester’s combination of peak and longevity, as quantified by his touchdowns per return.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

“One of the things he did this week, he actually reached out to Brian Mitchell, who had success beyond the age of 30 in the return game. ... You don’t have that breakaway speed, that make-you-miss in a confined space when you’re 30, 31 years old. And Brian Mitchell told him that. It becomes more of a team, and reading their blocks and having their trust.”

— The broadcast on Oct. 20, 2013 after Devin Hester’s 81-yard-punt return, his first return score since 2011, and his 19th return TD, tying Deion Sanders for the most non-offensive touchdowns in NFL history

“To have something turn off and suddenly brighten up at this distance is unheard of.”

Astronomer Karen Meech in March 1991 after Halley’s Comet shocked the astronomy world by flaring up 1,000 times brighter than expected a mere five years after its 76-year-only appearance


In both their play on the field and their longevity of greatness, return specialists are the NFL’s version of comets: celestial missiles of ice, dust and gas that rocket through space, a firey head followed by a gaseous tail. NASA describes them as “cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust,” with the dust and gases forming a tail “that stretches away from the Sun for millions of miles.”

Before the 17th century, scientists believed that comets were only seen once. That changed in 1705, when English astronomer Edmond Halley, and I’ll quote NASA again, “used Isaac Newton’s theories of gravitation and planetary motions to compute the orbits of several comets” finding “similarities in the orbits of bright comets reported in 1531, 1607 and 1682.” Halley surmised that these were actually a single comet, and that the comet would re-appear in 1758. Halley died in 1742, and 26 years later, what would become known as “Halley’s Comet” did indeed appear again.

The comet last appeared in 1986 and will appear next in 2061.

Of course by “appear” we mean that regular people can see them from Earth without any equipment. Halley’s Comet appears about every 76 years. But it doesn’t vanish in the interim. It stays in orbit, fast and powerful.

Devin Hester was Halley’s Comet, his 2006 and 2007 the equivalent of the 76-year appearance: visible to any football fan’s naked eye. His 2010 and 2011 were the flare up, reaching levels that other comets only reach at their peak. His 2012-2016 was a comet in orbit away from the Sun: fast, powerful, glowing, radiant — but largely out of the public discussion.

I’m no Edmond Halley. I’m no Isaac Newton. I’m no Karen Meech.

But I can tell you that Devin Hester was more than just a two-year phenomenon as he’s sometimes dismissed. Unlike most of the other all-time great returners in NFL history, Devin Hester had a complete career.

And that complete career shows up in several stats and games, including the one at the center of part 3 of my five-part Hester stats series: touchdowns per return.

  1. MONDAY: Career touchdowns
  2. TUESDAY: Season touchdowns
  3. TODAY: 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’S INSANE TOUCHDOWNS PER RETURN

Whether peak or longevity, Hester scored high

We talk a lot in Hall circles about peak vs. longevity. Because Hester’s peak is the greatest in returning history by a wide margin, it overshadows his longevity, which is related to his volume. Hester started his career with a barrage of touchdowns the likes of which the league has never seen.

Every time Hester went back to return in 2007, the broadcast showed the latest record he was breaking, or his career games played vs. his return touchdowns.

Screencap from Bears-Broncos game, 2007, after Hester’s first of two return touchdowns. (YouTube)

By the end of 2007, 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 — DEVIN HESTER, 32 games; Dante Hall, 104 games (active); Eric Metcalf, 179 games
  • 9 touchdowns — Mel Gray, 169 games; Deion Sanders, 188 games
Screencap from Bears-Giants game, 2007, showing combined kickoff and punt return touchdowns, the career leader Brian Mitchell vs. the second-year man Hester. (YouTube)

By the end of his second season, Hester was:

  • 1st in Chicago Bears history in special teams touchdowns
  • 1st in Chicago Bears history in punt return touchdowns
  • 1st in NFL history for special teams touchdowns in a season
  • Tied for 1st in NFL history for punt return touchdowns in a season
  • 2nd in NFL history for special teams touchdowns (1 behind Brian Mitchell’s NFL record)

Hester was also likely first in NFL history in touchdowns per combined kick and punt return, scoring in just under ever 14 returns. I say “likely” because there is no way to sort this on the incomparable Stathead, so I expanded my previous list of returners and looked at 36 total, everyone with either five career punt or kick return touchdowns, plus a few others.

Here were Hester’s all-time NFL ranks in touchdown per return after his second sesaon:

  • 2nd in touchdowns per kick return: 15.75 (behind Gale Sayers, 15.17)
  • 2nd in touchdowns per punt return: 12.71 (behind Jack Christiansen, 10.63)
  • 1st in touchdowns per combined kick + punt return: 13.82

In case it’s not clear, “15.75” means that Devin Hester scored on every 15.75 kick returns. So just under every 16 kick returns. He scored on just under every 13 punt returns (12.71). Overall, he scored on nearly every 14 combined returns (13.82).

Obviously those numbers were bound to drop, as there was no way that Hester was going to maintain that pace over a full career. But already you could see that he was no flash-in-the-pan returner, because his return volume was so much greater than others high on the list. Look at this:

Touchdowns per kick return after 2007

  1. Gale Sayers, 15.17 — 6 touchdowns in 60 returns
  2. Devin Hester, 15.75 — 4 touchdowns in 63 returns

Touchdowns per punt return after 2007

  1. Jack Christiansen, 10.63 — 8 touchdowns in 85 returns
  2. Devin Hester, 12.71 — 7 touchdowns in 89 returns

Touchdowns per kick + punt return after 2007

  1. Devin Hester, 13.82 — 11 touchdowns in 152 returns
  2. Gale Sayers, 14.75 — 8 touchdowns in 118 returns
  3. Travis Williams, 16.43 — 7 touchdowns in 115 returns
  4. Jack Christiansen, 18.00 — 8 touchdowns in 144 returns
  5. Bobby Mitchell, 21.38 — 8 touchdowns in 171 returns

Again, these are unofficial lists because there could be someone out there with a flukey, say, two touchdowns on five career returns, but this is a pretty solid accounting of what this list would have looked like after 2007. We’re talking about two Hester seasons vs. these guys entire careers. Hester had 63 kick returns vs. Sayers’s 60 for his career. He had 89 punt returns vs. Christiansen’s 85 for his career. And in the top 5 for combined kick + punt, Hester’s 152 returns was second only to Bobby Mitchell’s 171.

Hester did indeed drop: of the returners I looked at, Hester is now 10th, scoring once every 32.11 returns. Of the nine returners ahead of him, no one reached 300 career returns. Hester had over 600.

On the career list for touchdowns per punt return, Hester dropped to 4th. (I’m removing Travis Williams, who returned 13 career punts and scored once.) No one ahead of Hester reached 100 career punt returns. He had over 300.

Fewest returns per punt return touchdown, career (incomplete list):

  1. Jack Christiansen: touchdown every 10.6 punt returns (85 career punt returns)
  2. Gale Sayers: 13.5 (27 punt returns)
  3. Ollie Matson: 21.7 (65 punt returns)
  4. DEVIN HESTER: 22.5 (315 punt returns)
  5. Bobby Mitchell: 23.0 (69 punt returns)

Hester is lower in touchdowns per kick return, ranked 16th with one touchdown every 59 returns. At 295 career kick returns, Hester doesn’t have the same advantage here: of the guys ahead of him, Cordarrelle Patterson, Leon Washington and Terrence McGee all hit 200 career kick returns while Josh Cribbs hit an astounding 426. (See sidebar.)

NFL career touchdowns per combined punt and kick return

And now, the big one: career touchdowns per total kick and punt returns. If I could only make Devin Hester’s Hall of Fame case in five stats, this would probably be one of them. Hester is in the top 10 all-time here and is the only one with over 300 career returns. He had 610.

(Note: this is a non-comprehensive list, as there is no way to sort for this in Stathead. But it’s pretty good.)

  1. Gale Sayers: 118 career combined returns, touchdown every 14.75 returns
  2. Travis Williams: 115 / 16.4
  3. Jack Christiansen: 144 / 18.0
  4. Bobby Mitchell: 171 / 21.4
  5. Ollie Matson: 208 / 23.1
  6. Joey Galloway: 145 / 29.0
  7. Cordarrelle Patterson: 267 / 29.7
  8. Percy Harvin: 152 / 30.4
  9. Justin Miller: 158 / 31.6
  10. DEVIN HESTER: 610 / 32.1

Others of note:

  • TD per 40-49 returns: Deion (367 returns), Upchurch (343), Abe Woodson (316)
  • TD per 50-59 returns: White Shoes (405), Tunnell (304), Jacoby “Should Have Been Super Bowl MVP” Jones (459), Eric Metcalf (631), Dante Hall (642), Cribbs (648), Leon Washington (473)
  • TD per 60-69 returns: Randle-El (390)
  • TD per 70-79 returns: Sproles (643), Gray (673), Meggett (601), Howard (603), Bates (383)
  • TD per 80-89 returns: Brian Mitchell (1,070 combined returns, most all-time and the only person with more than 900 combined returns)

Of all of Hester’s modern peers anywhere in the all-time great returner discussion, the only person ahead of Hester on this list is Cordarrelle Patterson, who took a kick to the house every 29.7 returns instead of Hester’s 32.1. But that’s basically because Patterson only had one career punt return, giving him about a third of Hester’s combined return total. (More on that tomorrow.)

Again, Devin Hester had season after season of great return years

Here’s another fun way to look at it. We know that in terms of scoring, Hester’s 2006-2007 is far and away the best two-year stretch of returning the league has ever seen. But if we pull out some of these best returner’s best two- or three-year stretches, depending on what makes them look the best, it’s not just Hester’s ‘06-’07 clocking high.

Touchdowns per combined kick and punt returns, best 2- or 3-year stretches

  1. Sayers ‘65-’67: 10.63 — 85 returns
  2. HESTER ‘06-’07: 13.82 — 152 returns
  3. HESTER ‘10-’11: 17.67 — 106 returns
  4. E. Metcalf ‘93-’94: 23.75 — 95 returns
  5. Hall ‘02-’03: 24.57 — 172 returns
  6. Patterson ‘13-’15: 27.25 — 109 returns
  7. White Shoes ‘75-’77: 28.14 — 197 returns
  8. Patterson ‘18-’20: 28.67 — 86 returns
  9. Upchurch ‘76-’78: 29.33 — 176 returns
  10. Gray ‘92-’94: 29.50 — 177 returns

So when it comes to a returner’s best 2- or 3-year stretches in terms of touchdowns, Devin Hester’s 2010-2011 is third all-time. He’s better than Joystick-era Dante Hall, better than 75th and 100th anniversary team returner White Shoes Johnson, better than Rick Upchurch, better than Cordarrelle Patterson — better than everyone other than the first three years of Gale Sayers and the first two years of Hester.

(And I’ll note that I gave Sayers all of his first three seasons, but if I reduced it to just his 2nd and 3rd best season, he jumps up to a touchdown every eight returns, with six touchdowns on 48 total returns. Insane!)

What jumps out to me looking at that top 10 is that Hester’s ‘06-’07 is right in the middle in terms of most returns, with four above him and five below him. Of the guys I looked at, #11 on this list would be Josh Cribbs from 2007 to 2009, the first man on the list with over 200 combined returns. But Hester dominates him on TDs, with 11 on 152 compared to Cribbs’s still incredible eight on 255.

Let’s show this information one more way:

  • Fewest returns per TD, 100 career returns: Sayers, 14.75 (HESTER is 10th)
  • Fewest returns per TD, 200 career returns: Matson, 23.11 (HESTER is 3rd)
  • Fewest returns per TD, 300 career returns: HESTER, 32.11
  • Fewest returns per TD, 400 career returns: HESTER, 32.11
  • Fewest returns per TD, 500 career returns: HESTER, 32.11
  • Fewest returns per TD, 600 career returns: HESTER, 32.11

After that, you get to Brian Mitchell, who has the fewest returns per touchdown at 700, 800, 900 and 1000 career returns. Mitchell is known for his longevity, and rightly so. But Hester, who is not often considered in terms of longevity, had an impressive run across all ages. I like this:

  • Devin Hester, first career NFL game: 2006 Week 1, age 23, 1st career return touchdown (5 punt returns, 104 yards, 1 touchdown)
  • Devin Hester, final career NFL game: 2016 divisional playoffs with Seahawks, age 34, career postseason high for return yards at 194, all on kickoffs

Speaking of Hester’s final NFL game, he also had an 80-yard punt return wiped off the books due to a holding call against Seattle. With that return, Hester would have set a new NFL record for combined kick and punt return yards in a playoff game with 274.

The final play of his NFL career was a 78-yard kick return.

Three days from now, on December 9, 2023, Halley’s Comet will be at its farthest distance from the sun in 75 years, the midpoint between 1986 and 2061. The last time it reached this midpoint in 1948, known as the aphelion, the comet was traveling 2,000 miles per hour. That’s not close to the 122,000 miles per hour it clocked at in 1986 when thrilled, awe-inspired spectators watched it streak through the skies.

But like watching the greatest returner ever dash 78 yards with a kickoff at age 34 in his final game, even Halley’s Comet at 2,000 miles per hour is a piece of history.

Halley’s Comet, as photographed from the top in March of 1986. This was the famed comet’s first appearance since 1910; it won’t appear again until 2061. It is, in other words, the 2006-2007 Devin Hester of comets. (via Fort Lauderdale News / Newspapers.com)

Coming tomorrow, a look at what made Devin Hester truly unique as a return man: his ability to change games not just on punt return, and not just on kick return, but both.

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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.

And a big thank you to my oldest and dearest, Mike Swiryn, who helped me learn about comets and sort out this metaphor!