Devin Hester, the greatest return man of all time, likely played his last game ever Saturday, and it was the 10th bullet point from that game. There was understandably a lot to say after Atlanta Falcons’ top-down win over the Seattle Seahawks — like how the Seahawks offensive line let down Russell Wilson once again, how the Falcons defense may be rounding into a championship unit, and how scary that is when paired with the league’s best offense.
Those are worthy topics, too, but in a better world we could have appreciated Saturday’s game solely for Hester. If it was his last game — as he hinted afterward, saying, “I told my wife it’s pretty much my last year” — then it was a beautiful ending. All he did was keep the Seahawks within a puncher’s chance of winning on a day when the offense was marauded and the defense looked worn.
His 50-yard kickoff return early in the second quarter set up the Seahawks’ second score and brief 10-7 lead.
Late in the fourth quarter, he went 78 yards before being downed at the Falcons’ 31-yard line.
On the next play, Russell Wilson hit Doug Baldwin for a touchdown to pull within two scores of the Falcons.
Hester’s best play didn’t even count. The Falcons punted after the Seahawks’ second-quarter field goal, and Hester received the ball and time traveled back to 2007.
The play was called back because of a hold by linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, moving the Seahawks back from the Falcons’ 7-yard line to their own 4. The penalty was big — instead of an almost-certain score, the Seahawks gave up a safety when Wilson’s own lineman stepped on his foot.
But the result of the play is irrelevant to the bliss of watching Hester unwind and go. Return specialists don’t typically last long in the NFL because the league receives an infusion of young, cheap, fresh, and FAST players through the NFL draft every year. No one has outlasted his supposed shelf life better than Hester. At 34 years old, he busted out a spin move right out of Madden ’08 and ruined 10 pursuit angles before he was finally hauled down by cornerback C.J. Goodwin. If the Seahawks had gotten a better block on punter Matt Bosher, Hester likely would have found the end zone.
It’s fitting that Hester’s best play was called back. Being a great return man is often a bittersweet role. No other play in football highlights one player and the potential of singular effort like a kick or punt return, yet that effort is often wasted. Holding penalties occur frequently on these plays. Truth be told, I still can’t see where Pierre-Louis committed the foul (though no one has disputed that it occurred). Those fouls are almost always out of the sight and consciousness of the returner, who is operating on lizard brain instinct.
Kick and punt returns may be the most easily understandable plays in football. If you flipped on a game and had no idea what football is, you could probably watch a kick return and understand everyone’s role in the play. There’s a man. He catches the ball, and runs in the only logical direction. The guys wearing the same jersey as him are helping to clear his path. The guys wearing different jerseys want to stop him. The farther he runs, the better.
There’s nothing to it. And it’s through this simple prism that we saw Hester’s refracted splendor. That Hester was the best ever is indisputable. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in return touchdowns with 20. The three players just behind him — Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, and Ronde Barber — all had interceptions counted in their total. Hester’s number came off 14 punts, five kickoffs, and one missed field goal. He led the NFL in punt return touchdowns in 2006, 2007, and 2010, and in kickoff return touchdowns in 2006 and 2011.
"We had decided all week that we were not going to kick the ball to Devin Hester," Dungy said on the show. "That night after the meeting, I thought that was playing scared. So, the next morning as we're going to the game, I told the team I hope we lose the toss because if we do, we're going to kick it right down the middle to Hester. We're going to pound him. Then, they know we've taken their best threat. They're going to be finished.
"Thirteen seconds later he was in the end zone," Dungy continued. "Everybody is looking at me saying, who's that? I went back and said to them, I told you we'd have a storm."
Hester burned hot. As a Bears rookie, he scored five touchdowns without ever once touching the ball on offense. His first 12 return touchdowns came in the first two years of his 11-year career. He ran 2,713 yards on 152 kick and punt returns across those two seasons. And then he went cold for a while.
Kick returning is cruel way to be the Greatest Of All Time at something. At the height of his powers during those first two seasons, Hester only found the end zone on 7.9 percent of his touches. Then he scored zero touchdowns in his next two seasons, in large part because no one wanted to kick to him anymore. He had just 47 returns over that span. He couldn’t create his opportunities. He had to be given them.
In order to get the ball in his hands, the Bears tried their best to make him a deep receiving threat, but despite his physical gifts he was never a natural pass catcher, and many NFL offenses then, like the Bears, struggled to use space players properly. More than that, he was unhappy with quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears when he went to the Atlanta Falcons in 2014.
“I’ve got a quarterback now that ... he loves even the walk-ons,” Hester said, “and coaches that know how to get the ball to me; how to make plays for me. I’m excited for this season, man. This is only the beginning for our team. It’s a team that knows how to utilize their talent.”
Atlanta might have been a nice change for Hester, but it didn’t help his production. By then, the NFL was actively trying to make him obsolete. In 2011, the NFL moved the kickoff line from the 30- to the 35-yard line, and today NFL kickers put the ball in the end zone for a touchback roughly 56 percent of the time compared to 16.4 percent in 2010. Hester had three return touchdowns in 2011, and has had just two in five seasons since.
When he went to Atlanta, Hester joked about getting older: “You know, I lost it a little bit. I used to run a 4.2[-second 40-yard dash], but now I run 4.3." Hester was kidding, but getting even a little bit slower is a scary prospect for a specialist like him. There’s no question he wan’t very effective in his last two seasons. He touched the ball just 17 times in five appearances in 2015 — eight punts, nine kickoffs, and zero receptions. His punt return average was a career low 4.3 yards per.
This season, Hester had an ugly stint with the Ravens. He rarely created a spark in the return game. He often couldn’t even field the ball. Hester fumbled five times, losing the ball once. The Ravens cut him following their Week 14 loss to the New England Patriots after he misjudged a punt and allowed it to bounce to the 1-yard line. The gaffe led to a safety and a 2-0 Patriots lead.
That might have been how Hester’s career ended, a GOAT leaving a town that was perfectly happy to see him go. The only reason the Seahawks signed him was because they were heading to playoffs and Tyler Lockett was injured. He was lucky to be given the opportunity. Then he made the most of it, flashing brilliantly and superfluously in a game that history will soon forget.