By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) The Devin Hester era is over in Chicago. He rates among the best punt and kick returners of all time, and a closer look at his kick and punt return numbers shows how amazing he was.
Hester ranks 12th in NFL history in combined kick and punt return yardage with 8,745 yards (regular season only). Brian Mitchell is the all-time leader with more than 19,000 combined return yards, so Hester’s yardage isn’t exceptional. What set him apart was his ability to return punts, as his 13 punt return touchdowns are an NFL record. More than that, he returned them with stunning frequency:
Adapted from data at pro-football-reference.com
Other than a player from almost 70 years ago, Hester returned punts for touchdowns at a rate significantly better than the best punt returners in history. Even taking into account that he only returned one punt for a touchdown in the past two years, he was easily the best in the modern era.
Hester changed the way kick and punt returns were shown. Field level camera angles from the perspective of the returner began to be used, and when he broke one it was exciting to see him exploit the slightest advantage and leave defenses behind. He was fast, but he didn’t have once-in-a-lifetime speed as his 4.41-second 40-yard dash time in the NFL combine places him with a large group of other players. He had an uncanny ability to make defenders miss and did that one thing extremely well.
Unfortunately, the modern NFL has decreased the value of Hester’s return skills. This table shows the percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs since 2000:
Adapted from play-by-play data at pro-football-reference.com
Since moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line in 2011, returns have decreased dramatically. With half of all kickoffs sailing over the returner’s head, paying even the league veteran minimum is difficult to justify, particularly with the defensive needs the Bears have. Hester may have difficulty catching on with another team, as salary cap pressures cause teams to utilize return men who can also fill other roles. A pure kick returner in the modern NFL is a luxury most teams can ill afford.
Punter Ray Guy will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame this summer, making him only the second special teams player to achieve this honor. Hester deserves serious Hall of Fame discussion when his time comes but will be fighting an uphill battle. He specialized in a niche aspect of the NFL, and the fact he was the best ever at it probably won’t be enough. In an era of increased offense and a decreased emphasis on the skill in which he excelled, it will be easy for future evaluators to overlook his accomplishments as ones from a different football era.
None of this diminishes Hester’s career. He was the focus of attention when he was back to receive a punt or kick and electrified audiences with his moves. As nagging injuries began to slow him down, he seemed to infuriate us with his tendency to run side-to-side or even backward, but nothing can taint his first two seasons. Hester had a combined 11 return touchdowns those first two years — the next-closest in NFL history is six.
But it’s time to part ways, wish Hester all the best and see if he can make another team’s roster.
Devin Hester, you were ridiculous. Thanks for the memories.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.