If a casual football fan were to ask me what was so special about Devin Hester, I might say: He was drafted in the second round with the full knowledge that he’d probably never play regularly on offense or defense. Hester touched the ball 34 times on offense over a three-year career at Miami. He also had five interceptions. But when the Chicago Bears drafted him in 57th overall in 2006 they did it for one reason.
Four touchdowns on 41 punt returns, two touchdowns on 40 kickoff returns.
As a rookie, Hester never touched the ball a single time on offense. He scored five touchdowns. That’s fucking insane. Three on punts, two on kickoffs, and he didn’t even return kicks regularly until Week 13. Here he is returning a punt against the Cardinals on Monday Night Football for a go-ahead touchdown with three minutes left in the game, giving them a win.
Chicago made the playoffs that year and he had seven kickoff returns, one returned for a touchdown, the infamous Super Bowl-opener against the Indianapolis Colts that proved to be fruitless as the Bears only real offense was Hester’s special teams abilities.
Rex Grossman has started a Super Bowl in large thanks to Devin Hester. (Sorry, World, blame Hester.)
By 2007, Chicago began their efforts to make Hester a receiver, but it never quite worked out. He has caught 16 touchdowns in his career and has averaged 13 yards per reception, but there are flaws with Hester. Like 20 fumbles over his first three seasons alone. He cleaned that up as his career has gone along, but his receptions are a bonus in the way that say, Edgar Martinez’s defense would be a bonus to his storied career as one of the greatest hitters of all-time.
Oh yeah, Edgar.
Seattle Mariners fans are well aware of the debate that has raged on for like eight years now about why Edgar should or shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. Mariners fans argue that he is the greatest designated hitter of all-time, which should put him in the Hall. Idiots argue that because he didn’t play defense for the majority of his career, he didn’t do enough to warrant real Hall consideration. But Edgar did play defense quite regularly as a third baseman for a few years until the team decided in 1993 that it was in his best interest to switch to designated hitter for health reasons. He was actually a pretty good defensive player, unlike many players in the Hall of Fame who are only there because of their bats and who happened to play below-average-to-bad defense for many years, costing their teams runs in the process. Edgar was a “specialist” I suppose if you want to call it that, but he was the greatest of his kind.
So too may Hester be the greatest “specialist” of his kind in NFL history.
Hester led the NFL in punt return touchdowns in 2006, 2007, and 2010. He led the league in kickoff return touchdowns in 2006 and 2011. In 2010, he averaged 17.1 yards per punt return and 35.6 yards per kickoff return. Some may argue that someone like Brian Mitchell, the all-time leader in kickoff return yards and punt return yards, is the greatest. But Mitchell never had that “pop” that Hester has. He never took the league by storm. He’s a one-time Pro Bowl returner who played for 14 seasons.
Hester’s 14 punt return touchdowns is four more than any other player. He needs just 14 more punt return yards (in the regular season) to pass Dave Meggett for second all-time. You could’ve made a case for him as the 2006 NFL MVP (if LaDainian Tomlinson hadn’t had one of the greatest seasons of all-time, that is) without ever touching the ball on offense or getting a snap on defense.
Here he is returning a kickoff for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in 2007 in a 37-34 win:
He had five go-ahead touchdowns from 2008 to 2010, including a brutal 36-yard touchdown pass against the Seahawks in 2009 that gave Chicago a 25-19 lead with under two minutes remaining. (That by now we thank him for because, “Goodbye, Jim Mora.”)
Now he joins Seattle as they look to erase an inconsistent regular season with a successful postseason.
Of course, the Seahawks aren’t getting the Hester that we’d all like them to be getting. At 34 years old, Hester hasn’t score on a punt return since 2014, or a kickoff return since 2011. He was a Pro Bowler with the Atlanta Falcons two years ago, but he’s averaged just 6.5 yards per punt return over the last two seasons with the Falcons and Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens said, “Thanks, good luck!” a few weeks ago, giving the Seahawks a veteran presence to replace Tyler Lockett for at least one important game, since they were at the point of putting Richard Sherman out there and telling him to fair catch it every time.
Hey we could’ve kept Bryan Walters for that.
Hester is what he is. In my opinion, that is the greatest punt returner of all-time, who could’ve also been the greatest kick returner of all-time if he just did it more often. If the Bears had opted to never try Hester on offense, and focus him solely on special teams, in the way that the Mariners let Edgar focus on hitting, perhaps he could have been even greater. I believe the case for Hester in the Hall won’t go anything like Edgar; it seems like this is the year that is giving Martinez the momentum needed to get elected within the next two cycles. Hester won’t get in, period. Maybe that’s the right call. Maybe it’s not. If he’s the greatest “Something” of all-time, like Ray Guy being the greatest punter, perhaps he should have a place in Canton.
This Saturday he’ll have a place in Seattle. Perhaps he can do one last great thing in his career to really boost his chance. The Seahawks may need it.