Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Dec 2011

Devin Hester, Folk Hero

Devin Hester: great returner, or the greatest returner? Are we in a golden age for returners? Is Patrick Peterson the next Hester?

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 21 Dec 2011

29 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2011, 2:42pm by matt w


by Eddo :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 1:35pm

An OK overall article. It does read as if it were written by someone who is a fan, but doesn't really spend much time analyzing the NFL.

Peterson sure looks great, but, like Hester, let's see if he can keep it up. That's what impresses me most about Hester; many returned have had great single seasons, or even two great seasons; Hester has now had four of them.

by bernie (not verified) :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 2:20pm

I think Hester is a great return man, no doubt about it. However, the fact that Both Daniael Manning and Johnny Knox both went to probowls as returners in his absence, says more to me about the greatness of the Bears return unit blocking, than it does about the returners themselves. Sure he's still great, but would he be great if he played on the Colts shitty return teams? I think the Bears special teams deserves more credit.

by tuluse :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 2:25pm

They went to probowls, but they weren't as good. Is Johnny Unitas worse because Earl Morrall was good?

Also, Hester is much better as a punt returner than a kick returner. You'll notice the Bears never took him off punt returning duties.

by Eddo :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 3:13pm

Yeah - actually, Hester is just a "good" KO returner. It's his punt returns that really set him apart.

by Dean :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 3:22pm

Has Chicago had the same special teams coach the entire time?

by tuluse :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 3:36pm

Yeah, David Taub was hired before the 2005 season.

by Jimmy :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 3:45pm

There has been massive turnover on the Bears special teams apart from a few stalwarts - Mannelly, Gould and Hester - and hardly any of the guys on punt returns are the same (if any). So either the Bears have had the best players in all these units year after year or something else is going on. Maybe it is Dave Toub, he has fielded one of the best units (probably the best during his tenure) but he has always had Hester. Whilst Knox and Manning both went to a Probowl they have a combined two TDs on returns whilst Hester has 18 (this comparison is clearly a bit flawed due to different usage but still tells a story). I think Hester deserves the credit for the plays he has made.

by Eddo :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 6:00pm

I broke this down a bit in a comment on one of this year's Audibles threads. I'll repeat a chunk of that comment here:

I love Toub, don't get me wrong; but the Bears' special teams ratings jumped when Hester arrived. Here are the Bears' special teams ratings (overall, kick return, and punt return) since realignment

Year | Rk | .DVOA. | .KR.. | .PR.. | Notes
2002 | 7. | + 3.3% | - 3.9 | - 1.7 |
2003 | 6. | + 2.8% | +14.0 | + 8.0 |
2004 | 11 | + 1.9% | - 2.7 | + 9.5 | Toub's first year
2005 | 27 | - 2.6% | - 3.9 | - 2.8 |
2006 | 1. | + 7.6% | + 3.4 | +11.7 | Hester's first year
2007 | 1. | + 9.5% | +14.9 | +18.0 | Manning handles most kickoffs
2008 | 5. | + 4.2% | +16.2 | - 8.3 | Hester has a poor year
2009 | 3. | + 4.1% | +14.2 | + 5.1 | Manning/Knox on kickoffs
2010 | 1. | + 6.3% | +14.6 | +26.0 | Hester's renaissance
2011 | 1. | + 9.1% | + 6.8 | +11.7 | Through week 15 (UPDATED FROM ORIGINAL COMMENT)

Toub has been great, though the special teams didn't really erupt until Hester arrived. My personal opinion is that Hester is an unbelievable talent (not just physically, he uses blocks well and has great vision) that was drafted by a coach (and staff) that knew exactly what they could do with him.

Compiling this list, it's clear that Toub knows what he's doing with kickoff returns, as he's used primarily non-Hester returners with excellent results. The thing is, punt returns (read: Hester) have been fairly independent of the Bears' overall ratings, dipping badly in 2008-2009, while the overall quality remained high. This could suggest that Hester and Toub aren't as linked as we think, but I'm not sure.

by Jimmy :: Thu, 12/22/2011 - 8:15am

Nice post. In his rookie year Hester didn't return kicks until the St Louis game (when he scored twice) so perhaps a full season of Hester on kick returns would have been better.

by Independent George :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 4:26pm

He wouldn't be great on the Colts, but the Colts would no longer be shitty. If you put him on NE's very good return teams, they'd be great.

It's a lot like separating rushing numbers from the run blocking. Hester's benefited from some excellent blocking, but he also takes advantage of it in a way not every returner could. He's basically the Terrell Davis of special teams.

by ChiJeff (not verified) :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 3:31pm

What's really interesting about Hester is he had two years when he really looked helpless as a punt returner. Part of this may have been his increasing responsibilities as a wide reciever. But still, until last year it looked as if he would never return another punt or kick off for a td again

by Jimmy :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 3:57pm

No. Hester had two years where teams went to absurd lengths to avoid letting him get a decent return off. It would be more accurate to say that for two seasons it looked like no team would ever punt the ball to him again. It was starting to get daft, Aaron worked some numbers that suggested that teams were actually going a bit too far at the time but for those two years there was a unending stream of 30 yard punts to the sideline, squib punts that bounce short and anything else that they could think of to stop Hester running one back.

It was actually more of a problem on kick returns because teams took to simply kicking it to the fattest man in the wedge and then smacking the crap out of him. The resultant fumbles made Toub take out all the big guys and just use smaller 'hands' guys who all got flattened or ended up holding because they were too small, and then Hester would get flattened too. So they put Knox and Manning back there and were able to get decent yardage out of returns if not many TDs. As a result of Hester I have seen more schemeing on special teams in Bears games over the last five years than probably every other game I have ever watched.

by Eddo :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 6:01pm

Actually, he was still an above-average (+5.1, per FO's numbers) in 2009. He was only negative (-8.3) in 2008.

by ChiJeff (not verified) :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 6:20pm

Actually, I have to stand by my original statement. While teams no doubt tried different things against him there were plenty of returns that Hester looked unsure and seemed to have lost his explosion. It was something that was discussed alot on talk radio and in other forms of media. Last year seem to be the first year since 06 that he would make DECISIVE moves once he got the ball.

by Theo :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 8:39pm

Here in the Netherlands I have to miss out on all that valuable analysis on talk radio.
Good thing there's still free internet.
(by the way, if you can protest against SOPA somehow, please do)

by Eddo :: Thu, 12/22/2011 - 12:13am

I don't think I'd disagree. And yet (by FO's numbers), he was still effective, even when just a shell of his former self. That's a testament to his greatness.

by markus (not verified) :: Fri, 12/23/2011 - 4:47pm

"Actually, I have to stand by my original statement."

You can stand by any statement you want, but the stats say you're wrong. Game over.

by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 6:41pm

Sorry doublrr

by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 6:37pm

P. Peterson vrry slinky wuth ball in hands. Can last and suvceed as PR long term? Only tim will tell but thought here is Petetson going to havr some more good yraes. Maybr get 2 or 3 more retunr TDs next 2 or 3 years and then maube by 2014 tema takr him off PR unit and havr him stick to defensr. D. Revis greta PR in collefe but N.Y. Jets never let him return pumtd

by Eddo :: Thu, 12/22/2011 - 12:13am

Raiderjoe, I'm curious as to your opinion of Hester, from a historical perspective.

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 12/22/2011 - 7:39am

good chance D. Hester brst punt returnrr all timr. Also have to consider R. Upchurch even though guy plsyed for Broncos

by erniecohen :: Fri, 12/23/2011 - 12:25pm

Not Sayers? (Ignoring career length.)

by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 12/27/2011 - 3:51am

Sayers o ly 27 punt returns . Good punt returner but just nit enough returnd to qualifyh.sayers gerat kikcoff returner better at thqt than punt returning. George McAfee old timey Bear exfellent punt returner.
G. Pruitt ecelllent sesaon punt retyrning for 1983 Raiders. J.T. Smith good for kc chiegs 79-81. Later become real goood reciver Cardinals. Off top of head so someone csn chck if want to but beleive Smith get 91 cwtches 1987 st. Louis Cwrds. Second leading reciever had 68 cwtches.

Denver had food run of gerta punt returners. Bfore upchurch they had Bill Thompson. Aftet upchurch thry had Gerald Willhite being very goid on early J. Ekway teams.

by Phil O'sopher (not verified) :: Sun, 12/25/2011 - 11:19pm

In my lifetime of football watching;

in no particualr order best PR/KR returners I have ever seen

Eric Metcalf
Billy "Whiteshoes" Johnson
Brian Mitchell
Mel Gray
Josh Cribbs
Dante Hall
Deion Sanders
Dave Meggett
Rod Woodson

and then
Devin Hester

I don't remember Rich Upchurch very well, but have seen the highlights. He was very good.
Also, Gale Sayers. I have seen the highlights, but don't remember which were PR/KR and which were just awesome other plays.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Mon, 12/26/2011 - 2:47am

They're before my time, but I'm led to believe Crazylegs Hirsch and Doak Walker were very impressive.

by Temo :: Wed, 12/21/2011 - 7:33pm

I can't believe we've somehow found a website with more bullshit longform articles than Grantland.

by Sisyphus :: Fri, 12/23/2011 - 7:00pm

What cannot be completely assessed is how much Hester impacts the opponent's strategy. Some coaches go to great lengths to avoid kicking to him; kicking away from him, shorter to ensure coverage, or out of bounds. Not every opponent does this so some certainly wish they had after the fact, so this would not be smoothly reflected statistically though it might be interesting to calculate the punting effectiveness of opponents in net yards per punt in games against all other opponents and compare them on a per team basis to the games where Hester was playing.

by matt w (not verified) :: Tue, 12/27/2011 - 2:40pm

Tony Conrad AND the Descendents. No surprise that guy owns a record store.

by matt w (not verified) :: Tue, 12/27/2011 - 2:42pm

Beg pardon, record label. Vinyl-only, it seems.