Devin Hester announced his retirement on Tuesday, putting an official end to the greatest career a return man has ever had in NFL history.
That’s not an opinion borne out of a view through Bear goggles. Consider his accomplishments:
— Most punt return touchdowns (14) of anyone in NFL history, and it’s not particularly close. Eric Metcalf is second on that career list with 10.
— One of five players to return at least 300 punts and average 10 or more yards per return. Hester’s career average of 11.73 yards per return is the highest among that group; among players with at least 200 punt returns, it’s fourth — still a sign of remarkable consistency over an 11-year career.
— What he did in 2010 was other-worldly: He’s the only player in NFL history to return at least 30 punts and average 17 or more yards per return in a single season. He took three punts back for touchdowns that year, and also averaged 35.58 yards per kick return, the sixth-highest single-season average of any player to return at least 10 kicks in a given year.
— One of two players with five or more kick return touchdowns and five or more punt return touchdowns. The other player, Dante Hall, had six kickoff return scores and six punt return scores; Hester combined for an NFL record 19 return touchdowns in his career. He returned a missed field goal for a touchdown, too, giving him 20 total non-offensive touchdowns – another NFL record.
— One of 10 players to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a single game (Dec. 11, 2006 against the St. Louis Rams).
— One of 12 players to return at least 250 kicks and average 24 or more yards per return.
— The first person to ever return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown.
— Three first-team All-Pro seasons and four Pro Bowls from 2006-2014. Hester’s impact wasn’t only limited to his first couple years in the league; he was consistently outstanding for nearly a decade.
Even if you’re not convinced by his resume that Hester is the greatest returner of all time, it’s hard to come up with a case he doesn’t belong in Canton. If a Hall of Fame is supposed to tell the story of a sport, the Pro Football Hall of Fame can’t tell the story of football without including Hester.
That’s because Hester changed the way kick and punt returns were viewed. He alluded to it in his statement announcing his retirement — “Commissioner Goodell, you can put the kickoff back at the 30” — and while the league said the decision to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in 2011 due to player safety concerns, it did have an impact on return scores. From 2011 through 2016, there were 49 kicks returned for a touchdown; in the previous six seasons, 95 kicks were returned for scores, four of which were by Hester. We may never see another player like Hester who can make such an impact on punt and kick returns.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is notoriously stingy with special teamers, though. Morten Andersen and Jan Stenerud are the only pure placekickers enshrined in Canton (George Blanda was also a quarterback; Lou Groza also played tackle), and Ray Guy is the only punter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But a prior aversion to special teamers shouldn’t be what keeps Hester out of Canton. His impact on so many games cannot be understated, and deserves recognition in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — preferably, with his game-winning punt return against the Arizona Cardinals playing on a loop.
Devin Hester was ridiculous. It would be ridiculous to keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.