clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Devin Hester, the GOAT punt returner, was one of the greatest kickoff returners in NFL history

Devin Hester’s Hall of Fame case is not just his punt returns. It’s his kickoff returns, too.

Super Bowl XLI: Indianapolis Colts v Chicago Bears Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

Just because it’s an urban legend doesn't mean it’s irrelevant.

In March 2011, NFL owners approved a suite of rule changes designed to make kickoffs safer, including moving them up five yards from the 30 to the 35. Six teams voted against the package, which proponents claimed was for player safety.

“The objections were, ‘Hey, you’re affecting my team,’” said competition committee chairman and Falcons president Rich McKay. “Clearly, some teams have good kick returners, and they said, ‘What if there’s 10 percent less returns?’ We have no answer, but player safety will always trump any other consideration.”

I never saw a specific list of the six teams that rejected the measure; McKay’s Falcons actually led the NFL in kickoff return average in 2010, so I assume as competition committee chair, McKay was voting against his own team’s best interest. But considering the Bears had three of the NFL’s best kick returners on their roster, finished second in kick return average behind Atlanta and were outspoken against the rule, it’s safe to assume we were one of the six.

“I can’t believe we’re really talking about it — the most exciting play in football,” Lovie Smith said after the rule was finalized. “We would work to try to make it safer whatever way that is, but to eliminate that to me is just kind of tearing up the fiber of the game.”

On the Bears roster entering 2011 were Danieal Manning, who led the NFL in yards per kick return in 2008, and Johnny Knox, who was the NFC Pro Bowl returner in 2009. Manning had led the Bears in total kick returns in 2008 and 2010, while Knox led us in kick returns in 2009. They each had a kick return touchdown in that span.

And yet...

“We have a great returner,” Smith said. “Our fans are probably more interested in coming there to see Devin Hester run a ball back, as opposed to a kicker kick it out of the end zone with no action.”

Yes, in Chicago and even nationwide, the presumed victim of the new kickoff rule — heck, the presumed inspiration for the new kickoff rule — was Devin Hester, who had not been his team’s full-time kickoff returner since early in 2008, and who entered the 2011 season without a kickoff return touchdown since 2007.

Other kickoff return artists were discussed too, of course, namely Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington, who entered 2011 as #1 and #2 all-time in career kickoff return touchdowns. Cribbs had eight, with a league-leading three in 2009; Washington had seven, with a league-leading three in 2010. To my knowledge, no urban legend ever floated up that the NFL was changing its rules to stifle Cribbs or Washington.

No, that was reserved for Hester. It wasn’t true, but it felt true.

And it raised a more important point, one that the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee is now weighing: when it came to picking a victim of new kickoff rules, NFL fans and even some reporters centered on the greatest punt returner of all-time.

That is the focus of today’s part 4 of my five-part Devin Hester stats series: the rare returner who could do both.

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

Devin Hester, the roundly acknowledged greatest punt returner ever, was also one of the greatest kick returners ever

In the discussion about the possibility of a pure returner going to Canton, Hester is the only one to ever reach the semis, much less the finals. But he’s not the only one to get buzz or fan support. Most recently, Cordarrelle Patterson has received that buzz for his history-making work as a kickoff returner.

So let me start by saying one thing: Cordarrelle Patterson is one of my favorite recent Bears. He played here two seasons, had incredible spirit, led the NFL in kick return yards both years, scored a return touchdown both years and, most incredibly, was a three-time Associated Press All Pro. Yes, three AP All Pro selections in two years:

  • 2019 — 1st team kick returner
  • 2019 — 2nd team special teams coverage
  • 2020 — 1st team kick returner

Patterson is roundly considered the greatest kick returner in NFL history. He is first all-time in touchdowns (9) and third all-time in kick return average (29.4). He is the only player in NFL history to be in the career top 10 in the three major kick return categories (yards, average, touchdowns) and one of five players in the top 5 in two of the three.

Also, let’s note that because he was drafted in 2013, Patterson has done all of this in an era after the 2011 rule change that was supposedly going to legislate the kickoff return nearly out of existence.

I’m glad Patterson has garnered his own Hall chatter. His case should be debated! I’m all for all top returners getting their cases properly heard.

But when I think about the comparison of Patterson to Hester, I think of this:

  • Devin Hester career punt return touchdowns: 14
  • Cordarrelle Patterson career punt return yards: 9

That’s right: Devin Hester had more punt return touchdown than Cordarrelle Patterson had punt return yards. Patterson only has one career punt return. One! In 2016.

Patterson is not alone. The overlap of great punt returners and great kick returners is small. Brian Mitchell, one of the few returners to excel at both, explained why last year.

“The punt returner has to make decisions. The kick returner catches the ball with so much space, or at least they did before when they were kicking from the 30,” said Mitchell. “Back then, you just had to come out full speed. But that punt, you have to make up your mind if you want to fair catch it or not.”

Here is how Mitchell described the skillsets of each job:

PUNT RETURNER

  • Better hands. “If one punter kicked 10 punts, they may all come differently – but if 10 different kickers kicked 10 kickoffs, they all come the same way.”
  • Tougher decisions
  • “Shifty.” A punt return has to have shifty moves to gain yardage because “guys are closer to you.”

KICK RETURNER

  • Pure speed
  • “Sturdy.” “He’s running and then all of a sudden he gets to the crew, and they have some of the crazies on kickoff coverage.”

Hester had it all: he had the quick mental processing, great hands, and shifty running of a punt returner along with the blazing speed and sturdy strength of a kick returner. There were returners who did both well, but they weren’t necessarily the best of the best at either. And some of the guys who you might think of as doing both were still more one than the other.

For instance, Desmond Howard has one of the most famous kick returns in NFL history, his 99-yard touchdown to seal Super Bowl XXXI.

That was the only kick return touchdown of Howard’s career.

Mitchell had nine punt return touchdowns and four kickoff return touchdowns, making him one of just three players in NFL history with at least four career touchdown returns on both kickoff and punt, along with Hester and Dante Hall. If you lower that number to three touchdowns, you get four more returners:

3+ RETURN TDs ON BOTH KICKOFF AND PUNT, BY TOTAL TDs:

  • DEVIN HESTER: 19 — 14 punt, 5 kickoff
  • Brian Mitchell: 13 — 9 punt, 4 kickoff
  • Dante Hall: 12 — 6 punt, 6 kickoff
  • Josh Cribbs: 11 — 8 punt, 3 kickoff
  • Mel Gray: 9 — 6 kickoff, 3 punt
  • Deion Sanders: 9 — 6 punt, 3 kickoff
  • Bobby Mitchell: 8 — 5 kickoff, 3 punt

Of those seven, only Hester and Hall had 5+ in both categories, with only Hall having six in both. In the era of Patterson, plenty of people like to try to claim that Hester was “not a great kick returner,” but with five kickoff return touchdowns, Hester is tied for 9th all-time with nine other players, so still in the top 20.

Hester’s career average is 71st all-time at 24.9, but in 2010 he would have led the NFL in kick return average at 35.6 if he had 20 returns instead of 12. That average may have dipped with more returns, but the league leader was under 30, so he might still have done it.

Still, we don’t need hypotheticals to show Hester’s explosiveness as a kickoff returner. Touchdowns are a major part. Hester is one of four players tied for the single-season punt return touchdown record with four, tied with Jack Christiansen in 1951, Rick Upchurch in 1976 and Patrick Peterson in 2011.

Hester has five kick return touchdowns. Christiansen, Upchurch and Peterson have a combined zero.

In fact, in Hester’s second career game as the Bears full-time kick returner, he tied the NFL record with two kick return touchdowns in a game, scored one with the HANDS TEAM blocking, and set a new Bears single-game record of 225 kick return yards.

Chicago Bears v St. Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

A few more of the career leaders in either kick or punt return touchdowns shows just how specialized these skills could be:

  • Cordarrelle Patterson: 9 KR TD, 0 PR TD
  • Leon Washington: 8 KR TD, 0 PR TD
  • Rick Upchurch: 8 PR TD, 0 KR TD
  • Jack Christiansen: 8 PR TD, 0 KR TD
  • Desmond Howard: 8 PR TD, 0 KR TD

Inside Devin Hester’s season kick return ranks

Hester’s magic was seen in touchdowns, but his performance figured into yards and average, too. Cordarrelle Patterson led the league in one of the three major return categories 11 times: yards twice, average three times and touchdowns six times. He’s top of that list, but Hester’s in a good spot too:

  • 11 — Patterson (6x TD, 3x average, 2x yards)
  • 6 — Abe Woodson and Mel Gray (both with 3x TD, 2x average, 1x yards)
  • 5 — Darren Sproles (2x TD, 2x yards, 1x average)
  • 4 — Bobby Mitchell (3x TD, 1x average), Gale Sayers (2x TD, 2x average), DEVIN HESTER (2x TD, 2x yards)
  • 3 — Deion Sanders (2x TD, 1x yards), Josh Cribbs (one of each)
  • 2 — Eric Metcalf, Glyn Milburn, Dante (TD, yards), Leon Washington (TD x2)

If you get rid of the times where someone was the league-leader in touchdowns but with one touchdown return, the list looks like this:

  • 7 — Patterson
  • 5 — Sproles
  • 4 — A. Woodson, Gray
  • 3 — Sayers, HESTER, Cribbs

When you add in the punt returning, it’s not just that Hester is the greatest punt returner ever. It’s the combination. Hester is the only player to lead the NFL 2+ times in both kick return yards and punt return yards, and one of only two players — Deion Sanders — to lead the NFL 2+ times in both kick return TDs and punt return TDs.

(Mel Gray, incidentally, is the only player to lead the NFL 2+ times in both kick return average and punt return average, and who in 1991 led the NFL in both kick return average and punt return average. Salute as well to Michael Lewis, who in 2002 led the NFL in both kick return yards and punt return yards.)

The players who have led the NFL in 2+ of the three major categories in both kick and punt:

  • DEVIN HESTER: 11 total (7 punt, 4 kick)
  • Mel Gray / Abe Woodson: 8 (6 kick, 2 punt)
  • Deion Sanders: 7 (4 punt, 3 kick)
  • Eric Metcalf: 6 (4 punt, 2 kick)
  • Dante Hall: 4 (2 punt, 2 kick)

That versatility meant that while you might be able to neutralize Hester on punts by kicking out of bounds or angling to the sideline, you couldn’t do the same on kickoff unless, again, you were willing to give the Bears the ball at the 40. The fact that so many coaches were willing to do that certainly doesn’t say anything great about the Bears offense, but it says a lot about Devin Hester, and even increases his value when weighing the “snap count” question, which we’ll address tomorrow.

Anyhow, the dual-threat of kicks and punts led to fun graphics like these in Week 1 of 2008:

Speaking of the Colts... let’s talk about FEAR

When the Indianapolis Colts began to gameplan for Super Bowl XLI, I assume they talked about how to attack Brian Urlacher and where the pressure points were on the Bears offense. But the one person we know for sure who they discussed was Devin Hester. In the week leading up to the game, Colts head coach Tony Dungy, now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told Laurence Holmes that the Colts were not going to kick to Hester.

Following a chapel service about the bravery of David against Goliath, Dungy famously had a change of heart before the game and decided to kick to #23.

Of course, we know how this went. The Colts kicked off to Hester to open the game, Hester scored, and they played keep away the rest of the game. It was arguably the key coaching decision that led to Indy winning the Super Bowl.

Again, the key coaching decision that a Hall of Fame coach made to win a Super Bowl was to neutralize the opponent’s rookie returner — specifically on kickoffs.

I won’t call Devin Hester the greatest kickoff returner ever. That mark goes to Patterson, or maybe Gale Sayers. Josh Cribbs had the job down pat, and Deion was a threat anywhere on the field in any phase of the game.

But Devin Hester is certainly among the greatest kickoff returners of all-time, as seen in several ways, Super Bowl XLI among them.

And then there’s this:

That’s right: in Week 3 of the 2007 season, just the 19th game of Hester’s NFL career (or 22nd if you include the playoffs), the book on Hester as a kick returner was that you may as well just kick it out of bounds and take the penalty. Just give the Bears the ball from the 40. That was better than the possibility of Hester ending up in the endzone.

Again, watch that clip and listen to John Madden and Al Michaels. They have not an inkling of doubt that head coach Wade Phillips and the Cowboys have made the correct decision to kick the ball out of bounds.

Remember: the Bears didn’t make Hester their full-time kick returner until Week 12 of his rookie year. Including the playoffs, Hester had only 59 career kickoff returns to that point. But he had five touchdowns, or one on every 11.8 returns, which at that point would be the best mark in NFL history for fewest kick returns per touchdown.

Here’s another one from the week before, with Kansas City kicking off toward the sideline and Hester taking advantage of an odd NFL rule to get the penalty. He had already returned a punt for a touchdown that game — which, again, per Brian Mitchell, is a vastly different skill than kickoffs.

Didn’t matter: KC kicked it to the sideline and risked the penalty, which Hester helped them get.

As the Bears developed Hester as a wide receiver, they took the kick return game off his plate. They could justify it because Danieal Manning turned out to be a fantastic kick returner himself. But even after Manning and Knox, the man NFL coaches feared most in the kickoff game, the man who led much of the conversation about the kickoff rule change, was Devin Hester.

The 2011 rule changes brought touchbacks to the 25 to further incentivize safe decisions by returners. After the rule change, whether coincidence or not, Josh Cribbs never had another kick return touchdown. Leon Washington did not have one in 2011. You know who had one?

Devin Hester. No Bear would return a kickoff for a touchdown for another eight years.

Devin Hester, All-Decade punt returner and All-Decade kick returner — and in an era of more touchbacks

Here’s another fun fact: Devin Hester, Dante Hall and Mel Gray are the only players to make an All-Decade team at both kick and punt returner. Hester was 2nd team punt return in the 2000s and a kick return (no team designation) in the 2010s.

(White Shoes and Upchurch were both All-Decade in the 70s and 80s, though with no positional designation in the 1970s. And Upchurch snagged a weird one in the 1980s: he was named 2nd team kick returner with zero kick returns. You figure it out.)

Another good one that shows just how strong a kick returner Hester was: his career postseason high in kick return yards is the best of any 1st team all-decade kick returner:

  • Devin Hester: 194 yards
  • Michael Bates: 172 yards
  • Mike Nelms: 128 yards
  • Rick Upchurch: 94 yards
  • Cordarrelle Patterson: 80 yards
  • Josh Cribbs: 75 yards

One other note.

I mentioned that Cordarrelle Patterson’s entire career has taken place after the 2011 rule changes that people then thought would lead to the death of the kickoff return. It makes Patterson’s achievements even more remarkable. So try this on for size: over Devin Hester’s first five seasons, the percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs in the NFL doubled, from 8.9% the year before Hester came to 12.8% his rookie year to 16.4% in 2010:

Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2011, via newspapers.com

The kick return standouts of this era were breaking away from the pack in more ways than one. That includes Cribbs, Washington, our own Manning and Knox, and of course Devin Hester, who in 2010 was the NFL’s unofficial leader in yards per kick return at 35.6.

Just think: in 2010, 16.4% of kickoffs were touchbacks, then being brought out to the 20-yards-line. The Bears averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, second in the NFL. But when Hester returned kickoffs, he was 10 yards better, and a full 15 yards better than a touchback. Even if Hester brought a kickoff out from the back of the endzone, at 35.6 yards per return he was still giving the Bears better field position than a touchback.

Yesterday I noted that Devin Hester had the most complete career of any returner in the NFL from a Hall of Fame standpoint: the peak seasons and the longevity. That’s the sort of career that you see from Canton-bound players on offense and defense.

But Hester also had the most complete career of any returner in terms of the combination of kickoffs and punts. He’s the clear-cut punt return GOAT, but he’s also one of the greatest kickoff returners ever. Longevity, peak, records, touchdowns, clutch returns and most importantly, the fear factor.

As just a kickoff returner, Devin Hester had it all.

Coming tomorrow, the conclusion to our five-part Hester stats series as we dismantle the anti-Hester argument from last year’s finalist meeting: the myth of snap counts.

-

-

-

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.