Devin Hester, the greatest return man in NFL history, is retiring. He leaves a trail of juked defenders and thrilling moments in his wake. His next stop should be in Canton for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hester returned 20 kicks for scores during his 11-year career. Eighteen of those came in the first seven seasons. During that span, he was arguably the most electric player in the league — a looming weapon and appointment television.
In 2011, my colleague Jason Lisk assessed Hester’s Hall of Fame credentials by crunching the numbers. That analysis remains relevant as the returner did little to bolster his candidacy in the twilight of his career. Statistics say Hester was good for nearly a point/game more than a replacement returner, a huge figure considering the relatively small role returns play in total scoring.
It’s fair to say Hester’s impact will never come close to a Hall of Fame-caliber, every-down offensive or defensive player. It’s also fair to say his impact is lesser than an elite kicker like Justin Tucker. But something has happened between Lisk’s piece and now that should help Hester’s case — the induction of punter Ray Guy in 2014.
If a punter can make it, why not the guy catching the punts? The Hall has already established that transcendence in this specialized part of the game is enough to earn enshrinement. Arguments otherwise have lost part of their bite.
Finally, the Hall of Fame is heavily-reliant on statistics. They don’t tell the whole story though. Part of greatness is visual and visceral. Hester’s ability and game-changing speed, agility, and dramatic flair were plainly obvious. He was one-of-a-kind — and there won’t be another like him, thanks in part to the rules changes that have legislated kickoff returns mostly out of the game.
Hall of Famer is a term that still remains art, not science. Like a Supreme Court justice might say, “I know it when I see it.”
And this is what it looks like.