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Devin Hester’s snap counts? You don’t judge the Mona Lisa with a tape measure

Hall voters knock Devin Hester for low snap counts. That’s a silly way to judge transcendent greatness. But since you asked...

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Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If you watched Devin Hester you never forgot him.

That alone shouldn’t put someone in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; you never forgot Bo Jackson or Michael Vick either. But it’s a valuable head start before you tally a single stat. Memory. Impact.

An opponent’s fear.

For Canton, it all matters. And it’s the first of two reasons why I don’t think much of the snap count argument wielded against special teamers. That’s exactly what happened to Devin Hester in the finalist debate last year.

“There was back and forth,” Hall voter and Hester presenter Dan Pompei told Bears writer Larry Mayer in February after Hester missed out on the class of 2023. “It was a little contentious because there were a number of selectors who believe that a special teams player shouldn’t be as validated as a player who plays 65 snaps a game, and there was some back and forth about that.”

Thanks to Pompei’s fellow voter Clark Judge, we know that only three finalists for the class of 2023 reached 30 minutes of debate: Reggie Wayne at 33:48, Albert Lewis at 33:39 and Hester at 31:55.

“There are a number of voters who believe strongly in Hester’s candidacy, as I do,” Pompei said. “But there is a group that came out this year — we didn’t hear from them much last year — and there were a number of them who said, ‘Look, he only played so many snaps per game, how do we value that against somebody like DeMarcus Ware, who played more snaps per game?’”

To answer that question, I think of what the great Paul Zimmerman said about measuring Browns Hall of Fame fullback Marion Motley based first on his career statistics.

“(Stats are) kind of a meaningless way of evaluating this remarkable player,” Zimmerman wrote. “It would be like trying to describe a waterfall in terms of gallons per second, or a sunset in terms of light units.”

That’s how I feel about special teamers, especially the transcendent, life-affirming, game-changing, memory-creating Devin Hester. You don’t reduce him to snap counts. He’s bigger than that. He loomed enormous in the minds and imaginations of fans, media members and, most importantly, the opposition. As just a returner, both punt and kick, Hester might not even take 10 snaps in a game. Yet if he flipped the game with just one of those snaps, you didn’t bother arguing that he didn’t do much with the other eight.

But there is another reason that the snap count debate is silly for any returner, especially Devin Hester. His impact wasn’t merely on the touchdowns or deep returns. The “normal” plays added up. You might be surprised just how much. Here comes our finale on Devin Hester stats week:

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

Devin Hester as a returner gave the Lovie Smith Bears a lot of yards, a team that needed every yard they could get

Let’s start with 2006, Hester’s rookie year. This is a great sample to measure because Hester’s only touches were on returns. He didn’t play offense and as a cornerback he didn’t have a takeaway. The man at the center of our offense was the great Thomas Jones. TJ was a workaholic. A grinder. He was a high-volume running back who could also be a home-run hitter.

The ‘06 Chicago Bears had rock-solid skill position players but no Pro Bowlers. We had dependable receivers who could get down the field, especially Bernard Berrian, but no superstars. The strength of that offense was the ground game, with Thomas Jones at the center. Combining all plays where a Bear had the ball — offense, defense and special teams — we had 949 touches and 7,789 yards.

2006 Bears, percentage of total TOUCHES:

  • Thomas Jones: 35.0%
  • Cedric Benson: 17.4%
  • DEVIN HESTER: 7.2%
  • Muhsin Muhammad: 6.3%
  • Rashied Davis: 5.7%
  • Bernard Berrian: 5.6%

2006 Bears, percentage of total YARDS:

  • Thomas Jones: 17.5%
  • DEVIN HESTER: 15.9%
  • Rashied Davis: 13.6%
  • Muhsin Muhammad: 11.1%
  • Bernard Berrian: 10.0%
  • Cedric Benson: 9.0%

A few things jump out there, of course. Rashied Davis was our main kick returner until Week 12, and that combined with his play as our #3 receiver made him a 1,000-yard man in total yards. Benson had a low yards per carry while because they are wide receivers, Moose and Berrian had more yards per touch than Benson.

But the clear thing that jumps out at you is Hester, especially compared to Jones. At just 7.2% of the touches, Hester was 15.9% of our yards, slightly behind TJ despite Jones having 5x more touches. Hester did it all on special teams, and he did it for a Super Bowl team that went 13-3 and needed every bit of yardage to augment a solid but relatively unspectacular offense (relative to teams like the Colts, Saints and Chargers).

In 2007, Hester led the Bears with 1,874 total yards. He was now on offense, and while he had some big plays, he was relatively low-volume, with just 299 yards receiving. He was 26% of the yardage on just 12% of the touches. In a year when we had traded TJ, Benson wasn’t really working out and we were doing a three-man quarterback shuffle while trying for most of the season to break into the playoff race, Hester’s yardage and the advantages he gave us on field position were crucial.

Here’s a great screenshot from the 2006 home Vikings game, which the Bears won 23-13, including a punt return touchdown from Hester and an interception return touchdown from Ricky Manning Jr., followed by a screenshot from the famous 2007 Broncos game:

As Hester’s role as a receiver expanded in 2008 and 2009, his return yardage fell when the team elevated Danieal Manning to kick returner.

Looking at just special teams, here were Hester’s percentage of yardage and touches from 2008 to 2011, the years after Moose and Berrian left and before Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery arrived:

  • 2008: 12.4% yards / 7.4% touches
  • 2009: 14.3% / 10.7%
  • 2010: 13.4% / 5.5%
  • 2011: 16.2% / 7.1%

Where this gets really interesting is in 2012, the season we traded for Marshall and drafted Jeffery. Hester turned 30 and was still used on offense but was needed there less. On special teams he had 7.1% of our touches and 13.5% of our yards.

Then came 2013, the first year since 2006 that Hester had no touches on offense. This was Marc Trestman’s first year and we had massive performances on offense, with Marshall, Jeffery and Matt Forte all making the Pro Bowl. Forte was 3rd in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, Jeffery was 7th, Marshall was 23rd.

The Bears defense, though, dropped from 3rd in points allowed in 2012 to 30th, making for a lot of kickoff return opportunities for Hester. He led the NFL in kick returns and kick return yards and was 6th in kick return average at 27.6. And the percentage of team yardage?

  • Matt Forte: 22.5% (40.2% of the touches)
  • DEVIN HESTER: 19.7% (7.7%)
  • Alshon Jeffery: 17.7% (11.6%)
  • Brandon Marshall: 15.0% (11.2%)

Matt Forte is one of the all-time great yard-gainers in NFL history with just under 15,000 yards from scrimmage, good for 30th all-time, more than similar-era backs Fred Taylor, Corey Dillon, Eddie George, Marshawn Lynch, Ricky Williams, Thomas Jones, Jamal Lewis, Ahmad Green, Clinton Portis and Chris Johnson, among others. He was a yardage machine with the Bears. He and Hester were teammates from 2008 to 2013.

Hester vs. Forte yardage and touch percentage during their time together on the Bears:

  • Matt Forte: 21.3% yards — 36.2% touches
  • DEVIN HESTER: 19.1% yards — 10.6% touches
  • Hester, special teams only: 13.4% yards — 6.4% touches

It’s not about “snap counts” — it’s what you do on your snaps that counts

I first looked at the Hester vs. Forte bit in 2016 (see above, s/o to Laurence!), though the numbers are slightly different as I didn’t include defensive yardage. While Hester playing offense along with special teams change the math, the fact is that a returner is gaining more yards per touch than an offensive player.

This isn’t only true for Hester. Plenty of the greatest returners have had huge yardage outputs even with limited offense yards. A few examples of years when great returners led the NFL in all-purpose yards (APY) while finishing low on their team in yards from scrimmage:

  • Brian Mitchell, 1994: 2,477 APY, 547 yards from scrimmage (4th on team)
  • Michael Lewis, 2002: 2,647 APY, 215 yards from scrimmage (7th on team)
  • Dante Hall, 2003: 2,446 APY, 496 yards from scrimmage (5th on team)
  • Josh Cribbs, 2007: 2,312 APY, 98 yards from scrimmage (10th on team)
  • Leon Washington, 2008: 2,332 APY, 803 yards from scrimmage (4th on team)

Here are their return averages in those years, with an asterisk on the league leaders:

  • Mitchell, 1994: 25.5 KR, 14.1 PR*
  • Lewis, 2002: 25.8 KR, 14.2 PR
  • Hall, 2003: 25.9 KR, 16.3 PR*
  • Cribbs, 2007: 30.7 KR*, 13.5 PR
  • Washington, 2008: 25.6 KR, 10.4 PR

As league-leaders in all-purpose yards, all five of those guys in those seasons were gaining a much greater percentage of their team’s yardage than even Hester was in 2006 and 2007. Those five guys were also full-time kick returners, which makes Devin Hester’s 2006 even more impressive. Cribbs, the only one below 100 yards of offense, had the lowest percentage of his team’s yardage at 27.8%, while Mitchell had the highest at 33.0%.

Hester in 2006, meanwhile, was the only one of them with more punt return yards than kick return yards, the only one who was not a full-time kick returner and the only one who didn’t play offense. The fact that he was nearly 16% of the yardage of a Super Bowl team, where the running back was 17.5%, is remarkable.

Whether the kickoff return guys, the dual-return guys, or the true all-purpose guys who played some offense, fans and many reporters tend to simply wave all this off. They ignore, or take for granted, or outright de-value the yardage that even an average returner gains. Hester was far from average. With the Bears, Hester averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and 24.8 yards per kick return. In 2010 and 2011, Hester averaged 16.7 yards per punt return and 25.6 yards per kick return.

Those are massive totals far beyond what any running back can gain and more in line with top-flight wide receivers.

That’s part of what makes the return game so critical to a team’s success: the odds of a giant play are greater, while the chance at a big chunk of yardage on a “regular” play are high, too. Sure the snap counts are low, but the yard per snap are sky-high. A returner might have low snap counts, but they’re like a world-famous comedian at a family barbecue: always on.

You can’t say that for every position. Look at the 2013 Bears, with four key players:

  • Brandon Marshall: 985 offensive snaps, 100 touches (164 targets)
  • Alshon Jeffery: 960 offensive snaps, 105 touches (89 receptions on 148 targets)
  • Matt Forte: 929 snaps (all offense), 363 total touches (74 receptions on 95 targets)
  • DEVIN HESTER: 246 snaps (all special teams), 70 returns

Here are their percentage of touches per snap:

  • Matt Forte: 39.1%
  • DEVIN HESTER: 28.5%
  • Alshon Jeffery: 10.9%
  • Brandon Marshall: 10.2%
Tennessee Titans v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Unfortunately we don’t have snap count data for 2006, but by combing our 16 regular season game logs, adding up all of the kickoffs and punts, adding up all of the returns and fair catches, and taking some educated guesses as needed as to which returner was back on plays that don’t have a returner logged (a touchback or a kick out of bounds), it’s clear that Hester in 2006 was getting a ton out of his snaps.

The main special teams return touch percentage for the 2006 Bears (and I’m not counting a fair catch as a “touch” — that’s more like a target for a WR):

  • Rashied Davis: 96.9% (32 snaps, 31 kick returns)
  • DEVIN HESTER: 57.3% (returned all 20 kickoffs he was on the field for and 47 of the 97 punts he was on the field for)

That doesn’t account for Hester being on the field goal block team, which of course yielded one of his most famous touchdowns. But Hester went back to return on approximately 117 combined kickoffs and punts, and he ran back 67 of them, or 57%. He scored on five of those, or a touchdown every 13.4 returns, which as I noted Wednesday is a historic mark.

So yes, Hester was on the field much less than an offensive player. But when he was on the field he was much closer to having the ball at a running back level than a wide receiver level. And I don’t want to take away from Marshall and Jeffery. When they’re running routes and not getting the ball they are creating opportunities for teammates. Marshall was also one of the greatest blocking wide receivers I’ve ever seen. I’ll put him next to any WR in my life. In 2013 we started running end-arounds with Jeffery, and Marshall was often making the key block on his side of the field.

But the fact remains that when a returner is on the field, he is the kicking team’s sole focus. The ball is either going in his hands or they’re going to have to keep it out of his hands. When Devin Hester was on the field, it was like when Lawrence Taylor was on the field: you had to know exactly where he was, and he put you on your heels as soon as the play was live.

Because of that fear fact, kickers and punters started trying to keep the ball out of his hands in his rookie year. In 2006, Hester went back to return 97 punts and only returned 47, with just a fair catch seven times. Forty-three times, the punter either put the ball out of the endzone or successfully placed it somewhere, either out of bounds or the punt team downing it. No other position can create as much yardage without the ball as a returner, and no other returner created as much yardage without the ball as Hester.

He did not get any yardage tacked onto his total when teams squibbed the kickoff to the up-man. He did not get any yardage when the other team kicked off out of bounds to give the Bears the ball at the 40. He did not get any yardage when the punter was trying to avoid Hester and either shanked his kick short or had it blocked.

Ultimately, voters are going to debate this and elect Devin Hester, so no harm no foul. But no, I don’t think they should judge transcendent players on snap counts. It’s reductive. It’s also misleading: returners gain tons of yards. These are yards that win football games. Returners are also end up with the ball more frequently on their snaps than many of their offensive counterparts.

In other words, a returner is the ultimate quality-not-quantity player. And no returner in NFL history had more quality than Devin Hester.

Ladies and gentlemen, I yield back.

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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.