That tally puts it up to 17 total special teams touchdowns, as he has added three more this season, including a kickoff return (so much for the Devin Hester rule, huh?). He already surpassed Brian Mitchell for most special teams return touchdowns last season, and I’m pretty sure Mitchell caught punts from both Blanda and Lechler. Hester is in his sixth season, and has obliterated the return marks.
So, naturally, talk turns to his legacy, and whether he is a Hall of Famer. Pete Prisco says no.
But when you consider special teams to be 1/12th or so of the game, how can a player who returns kicks and punts be in the Hall?
Let’s call Hester what he is, a special return man who can change a game.
Not Hall worthy.
I think there are a couple of arguments here. First, it’s not the Hall of Value, it’s the Hall of Fame. Now, I am a statistics guy, so I like to see tangible proof of value and not just opinion, but we can try to assess Hester. It’s pretty clear he is the best candidate among return men. I have no problem with a returner who set records like Hester being considered. My issue comes more with the intangible stuff where Peter King prefers someone like Steve Tasker, but how can you really be sure he was better than Bill Bates? (And that sets aside how much less value one coverage guy has versus one returner).
But let’s turn to Devin Hester’s value, and for now, set aside any contribution as a receiver. He has scored 17 regular season return TD’s. We’ll give him full credit for 7 points on each return touchdown. That’s 117 points in 87 regular season games–1.34 points per team game. We need to compare that to average, and taking out Hester’s returns, and looking at the punt and kick returns by everyone else, the average is 0.40 points per game from return touchdowns from 2006-2011. Hester, then, is almost 1 point better than average per game, just accounting for the touchdowns. He also has some smaller incremental value because of punts forced out of bounds, and return yards above average on non-touchdowns that set up better field position. It’s not hard to think he is in the +1.2 to +1.3 range on points better than average as a returner.
When I tried to look at what an average Hall of Famer was worth, the rough answer was about +1.8 points versus an average starter on offense, and +1.6 points versus an average starter on defense. Hester is worth less than the average Hall of Famer, but that doesn’t mean he is outside the range of the Hall of Fame candidates. Those are the averages, which means half are below that. While I don’t like the he’s as good as [worst player in] argument, there are enough players who were similar in points added or prevented per game to say Hester is in the discussion on value alone at this point.
In contrast, Brian Mitchell, whom Prisco compares him to, and who had the return record before Hester, scored 13 touchdowns in 14 NFL seasons. His return points added over added was barely over +0.2 accounting for league averages during his career. In terms of value, Hester versus Mitchell isn’t particularly close. Sure, Hester may hang on and have some bad seasons that pull his value down, but right now, he’s valuable enough.
Then you can look at his impact on his team. Players get credit for big plays in the postseason or important performances all the time. Hester may not be as valuable if he played for a team with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning at quarterback, in terms of wins added. With the Bears, though, and the way they have played during his career, his returns have been a big factor. The Bears are 10-4 in games Hester scores a return touchdown, and 43-32 in games he does not. While some have come in blowouts, a fair number have been decisive. Hester touchdowns account for the difference in 6 wins over the last 5.5 years, including such memorable games as the “Bears are who we thought they were” game, a two-touchdown game in Denver that beat Cutler 37-34, last year’s game against the Packers, and against the Panthers this year. Three others would have been close games decided by less than 3 points without a Hester return. That’s a fairly large impact, on par with the average wins added for an average Hall of Famer.
I know that return men don’t normally make the Hall of Fame. They also normally don’t have as much impact as Hester. Is he a Hall of Famer based on value? I think he is, in a vacuum, and it will eventually happen depending on the ballot. That doesn’t mean I would take him over Willie Roaf or Tom Brady or Ray Lewis. I wouldn’t have thought so before the last two seasons, but I now think Hester merits Hall of Fame consideration, regardless of how you view the value of the position normally.
[photo via Getty]