How Good Is Hester?
by Vince Verhei
In one of his recent TMQ columns on ESPN.com, Gregg Easterbrook dropped this nugget of info:
"Devin Hester has fielded 93 kicks in his career and run eight back for touchdowns."
Well, that's an eye-grabber, isn't it? I mean, that can't possibly be right. And it turns out, it's not right. Hester has fielded 95 kicks in his career: 35 kickoffs, 59 punts and one field goal. Apparently Easterbrook missed "plus" and hit "minus" when totaling Hester's stats. And "fielded" may not be the right term, because these numbers don't include Hester's 16 fair catches.
Regardless, Hester has scored eight total touchdowns on 95 total kick returns, an average of one touchdown per 11.9 returns. How does that compare to the greatest kick returners in league history?
To answer that, we have to decide what makes a great kick returner. The NFL Record and Fact Book lists leaders for combined kick returns on its kickoff returns page. There is also a page for punt return records.
The all-time leader in combined kick return touchdowns is Brian Mitchell with 13 (nine punts, four kickoffs). In second is Eric Metcalf with 12 (10 punts, two kickoffs), then Dante Hall with 11 (five punts, six kickoffs). But since those are career totals, players with shorter careers (such as Hester) obviously don't compare. Mitchell played 13 years; Hester has played just 20 regular-season games.
We should look at each player's touchdown rate, not touchdown total. And while we're figuring numbers for Mitchell, Metcalf, and Hall, we may as well look at other great players from the kickoff and punt returns pages.
Our list looks like so:
- The all-time record holders in combined kick return touchdowns in a single season. Hester actually set this record with five last year (He is not given credit for returning the missed field goal -- more on this later). Nine men (Jack Christiansen, Emlen Tunnell, Gale Sayers, Travis Williams, Cecil Turner, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Rick Upchurch, Hall, Eddie Drummond) have scored four times on kick returns in a season.
- The top three men in total career kickoff return yardage: Mitchell (14,014 yards), Mel Gray (10,250), and Glyn Milburn (9,788).
- The three all-time leaders in kickoff return average: Gale Sayers (30.56), Lynn Chandnois (29.57), and Abe Woodson (28.69).
- The all-time leaders in kickoff return touchdowns. The NFL lists several men here in three groups: Those with four career scores on kickoff returns (Turner, Ron Brown, Jon Vaughn, Andre Coleman, Tamarick Vanover, Tony Horne, Mitchell, Darrick Vaughn and Terrence McGee); those with five (Bobby Mitchell, Woodson, Timmy Brown, and Michael Bates) and those with six (Ollie Matson, Sayers, Williams, Gray and Hall).
- The career leaders in punt return yardage: Brian Mitchell (4,999), David Meggett (3,708) and Darrien Gordon (3,601).
- The career leaders in punt return average: George McAfee (12.78), Christiansen (12.75) and Claude Gibson (12.55).
- The career leaders in punt return touchdowns. Metcalf holds the record with 10. Brian Mitchell has nine. Three men have eight: Christiansen, Upchurch and Desmond Howard.
Counting Hester, that's 32 of the greatest kick returners in NFL history. I'm going to add one more name to the list: Deion Sanders. I'm including his name for two reasons: 1) With six career touchdowns on punt returns and three more on kickoff returns, he just missed showing up on these lists, and 2) His jersey is hanging on my wall, and I want to see where he stacks up.
Before we get to the final numbers -- which, by the way, come courtesy of Football @ JT-SW.com -- we have to make one more adjustment: We're taking Hester's missed field goal return away. Call it fair, call it unfair, but since none of these other guys ever had an opportunity to return a missed field goal (as far as I know), we're removing it to even the playing field for everyone.
The final results, with "Touchdown rate" being the ratio of combined kick returns to combined touchdowns, so lower is better:
Some of these players are Hall of Famers. Some are Super Bowl Champions. Some had a moment in the sun, then faded into obscurity. And all of them wish they were as good as Devin Hester. It's doubtful that he'll be able to maintain this kind of success as he gets older -- Travis Williams, for example, scored four times (on only 18 returns!) his rookie year with the Packers in 1967, then scored on only two more returns the rest of his career -- but what he's doing right now is unprecented.
How good is Devin Hester? So far, he's the best there's ever been.