Hester recently broke the NFL record for total touchdowns on kick and punt returns with 14. There’s no question that’s a lot, but what kind of impact on game outcomes does a returner like that really make?
Aside from his touchdowns, Hester is an average returner. In other words, he either takes it to the house or he’s getting average return yardage, about 9 yds per punt return and 22 yards per kick return. He isn’t distinguished enough as a receiver to even begin meriting a discussion of Hall-worthiness with only 164 receptions and 2,132 receiving yards.
Hester is distinguished by his return TDs and his return TDs alone, so let’s start to put those in perspective with a quick back-of-the-envelope analysis.
Hester’s total of 14 touchdowns is spread out over most of five seasons as a returner. He has 10 punt return TDs in 175 attempts and 4 kick return TDs in 112 attempts. Let’s compare those numbers to what an average team could expect in terms of returns.
In roughly the same period as Hester’s career, 1.3% of punt returns are touchdowns, and 0.7% of kick returns are touchdowns. The ‘expected’ number of touchdowns given Hester’s attempts would be 2.3 punt return TDs and 0.8 kick returns, for a total of 3.1 TDs. In essence, Hester has provided about 11 more TDs than we would expect over his five-year career.
But kick returns aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As exciting and spectacular as they are to watch, they don’t use much clock time or real time, keeping defenses on the field for consecutive drives. Also, the outcome of a kick return isn’t just touchdown-or-no-score- at- all, because offenses will score on a healthy proportion of drives anyway.
From the point of the average return, at about the 27-yard line, offenses score TDs 18% of the time and get FGs another 10% of the time. Valuing a field goal at 3/7 of a TD, that’s effectively a 22% TD rate. Keeping that in mind, Hester’s real impact would be diminished somewhat, going from 11 TDs above expected to perhaps 8 or 9.
That’s 8 or 9 ‘touchdowns added’ sprinkled over 74 games and nearly five seasons. That’s not a very big impact. Compare that to someone like Deion Sanders, who was no slouch as a returner with 8 total TDs over 367 attempts, but who was also a game-changing defender. Think of how many TDs ‘saved’ Sanders could be credited for. How many drives that otherwise may have been touchdowns did Sanders help kill either by directly defending a pass or deterring one? Heck, Sanders scored 10 TDs himself off of interception and fumble returns alone. Rod Woodson, a recent Hall-selectee, had 13 TDs off of turnovers.
Looking through the lens of expected points added can clarify things by measuring performance among the various dimensions of the game with the same yardstick. Hester's punt returns have been worth +41.8 EPA. His kickoffs are equally impressive, totaling +42.3 EPA. Throw in his +28.0 EPA as a wide receiver, and you've got a very valuable player with a grand total of +112.1 EPA and counting over five seasons.
For comparison, here are some of the other top offensive skill players who also started their careers in 2006: Maurice Jones-Drew +115.1 EPA; Vernon Davis +87.3 EPA; Joseph Addai +73.0 EPA; Brandon Marshall +134.3 EPA; Marques Colston +265.1 EPA; Greg Jennings +241.3 EPA; DeAngelo Williams +52.6 EPA; Santonio Holmes +204.7 EPA; and Vince Young +84.0 EPA. (Notes: These numbers include post-season games. WR numbers can be inflated because by the time the ball is released and targeted to them, several successful events have already occurred on the play.) To put things in full perspective, this season alone several QBs have exceeded Hester's total career EPA.
Unfortunately for return specialists, it’s nearly impossible for even the very best to have a Hall of Fame-level impact on a team’s fortunes. That’s the case against Hester, and for that matter, any special teams specialist.
On the other hand, Chicago relied heavily on Hester’s 5 touchdowns in 2006 and 6 in 2007 because their offense was relatively weak. Those TDs made the difference in several games, helping the Bears earn a bye and home field advantage in the 2006 playoffs. In conjunction with a lead-leading defense, Hester’s impact is enhanced. Hester also ran back the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl that year, doing his part. Had the Bears won the championship that season, Hester would have been in the running for MVP, and his case for the Hall that much stronger.
Further, there’s a case to be made that Hester is deserving simply because he holds the record for return TDs. The Hall of Fame is, after all, not the Hall of Touchdowns or Yards, nor is it the Hall of Passer Rating. It’s about fame, which means whatever we want it to mean. Even if special teams are a small part of the game, shouldn’t the very best be recognized in Canton?
Consider this: Brian Mitchell’s previous record of 13 return TDs came over a much longer period. He had 9 punt return TDs on 463 attempts (1.9%) and 4 kick return TDs on 607 attempts (0.7%). Hester’s TD rates of 5.7% and 3.6% dwarf Mitchell’s numbers and soundly beat the best five-year span of his career. If any returner belongs in the Hall, it would probably be Hester.
Ultimately the question isn’t about whether Hester belongs in the Hall. It’s a question of whether any ‘teamer’ belongs there.