Quantifying Devin Hester

| December 18th, 2017

Devin Hester officially announced his retirement this week, well after NFL teams had made it obvious that his career was over. My Twitter feed was instantly flooded with highlights and memories, and I hope you’ve taken a few moments in the last couple days to remember just how special Hester was. If not, here’s a quick refresher. Well, it’s not that quick, but that’s the point; Hester’s highlight reel is a long one.

Hester is without a doubt the greatest return man in NFL history. His 20 return touchdowns are the most ever. He had 3,786 punt return yards as a Bear, more than 1,000 more than the next highest returner, and his 14.3 yards per punt return led the NFL (minimum 50 attempts) by half a yard over that stretch.

But a common argument has been that Hester’s impact extended beyond his absurd return statistics because teams prioritized kicking away from him, giving the Bears better field position. Using the terrific Game Play Finder from Pro Football Reference, I attempted to see if that actually happened. Special thanks to the wonderful Andrew Link for helping me think through how to do this.

The Setup

In order to do this, I looked at all punts from 2006-2013, the years Devin Hester was a Bear. In order to examine if teams were kicking shorter against the Bears to avoid Hester, I looked at raw punting yardage, which ignores any returns. Then to examine Hester’s total impact, I factored in return yardage for net punting average. Finally, I also examined touchdowns that teams scored on punt returns.

In order to get the best overall understanding of the impact Hester had, I looked at how the Bears compared in each of these three categories to the NFL average, but also how far separated they were from each individual team.

Unsurprisingly, the Bears led the NFL in all three categories, and often by a wide margin. Let’s look through each of them one by one to break it down in a little more detail.

Yards Per Punt

Conventional wisdom says that teams intentionally punted shorter against the Bears to avoid Hester returns, and the numbers absolutely bear that out. From 2006 to 2013, the average NFL punt traveled 44.2 yards, while the average punt against the Bears went only 42.5 yards, the shortest distance in the NFL. A rough spread of all 32 teams is shown in the graph below.

The 42.5 yards per punt against the Bears came in a full 0.7 yards shorter than the next team. This same margin of 0.7 yards per punt was the difference between the 2nd and 16th teams, which means the Bears truly stood alone.

To look at it another way, punts against the Broncos averaged 0.6 yards per punt farther than the next highest NFL team. That means the altitude in Denver made less of a difference in punt length than kicking to Devin Hester did. I find that quite remarkable.

If you’re more of a stats person, Chicago’s z-score here was -2.18, meaning less than 1.5% of results would be expected to beat this.

Net Yards Per Punt

Even though teams kicked it short to try and avoid Hester, he still made them pay quite often. Like I said above, he averaged over 14 yards per punt return as a Bear, best in the NFL among players with 50 or more returns. Although short kicks meant Hester had to call a number of fair catches, the Bears were still the 2nd best team in the NFL with 5.7 average yards per punt (including punts with no return). That means the Bears were even more exceptional in net punting average (punt yardage – return yardage) than they were in just punt yardage.

An average punt against the Bears during Hester’s tenure yielded 36.8 yards of field position, compared to an NFL average of 39.7 in that same time span. As you can see in the graph below, that 36.8 mark is truly remarkable.

Look at that gap between the Bears (far left) and the next team. The difference between the Bears and the 2nd best team here was 1.5 yards, which is the same as the difference between the 2nd and 18th best teams. Once again we see the Bears are about as far ahead of the pack as the next best team is from average.

Again for the stat-heads out there, the z-score this time was -2.68, meaning less than 0.4% of results would be expected to beat this.

Punt Return Touchdowns

Those two categories help illustrate the impact Hester had consistently helping the Bears pick up good field position, but Hester’s greatest value was arguably the game-changing touchdowns that were a semi-regular occurrence. Between 2006 and 2013, there were 121 punt return touchdowns in the NFL, and Hester had 13 of them.

Think about how absurd that is: in an 8 year stretch, one single player accounted for more than 10% of all touchdowns scored via punt return. No other player in the NFL accounted for more than 4 punt return touchdowns in that span, and no other team had more than 8. The graph below illustrates just how far ahead of the pack Hester was.

The difference between Hester and the next best team was the same as the difference between 2nd and 21st teams. So once again we see the Bears are so far out from the pack that they’re basically in a league of their own. And once again for those who are more statistically minded, the z-score here was 3.34, meaning less than 0.4% of results would be expected to beat this. 0.04%.

Wrapping It Up

Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!

We all know that, and I’ve got a bunch of numbers here to back it up. When Devin Hester was a Bear, Chicago was truly in a league of their own when it came to punt returns. He consistently saved them yardage and delivered more big plays than anybody.

I don’t know if Devin Hester will end up in the Hall of Fame or not (though I think he should), but there is no denying the impact he had on special teams over his 8 years in Chicago.

Tagged: , , ,

  • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

    With one play, Hester raised the level of anticipation or dread in fans to levels rarely seen, and you made sure you were watching. When Hester was back there, there was no checking out early to grab a beer or hit the head.

    • BearDown100393

      Devin Hester returning any kick was must watch television. No different than Sosa at the plate during his heyday.

    • Bender McLugh

      I missed the SuperBowl return because I was in the bathroom for the kick off and didn’t have the game paused yet, so true.

  • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

    Maybe it is only interesting to me. Lovie Smith witnessed all 20 of Hester’s returns. 19 when he coached the Bears. And 1 when he was the opposing coach of TB when Hester was in ATL.

  • SC Dave

    Hahaha… that first KO return against the Rams looks like a damn cartoon with how FAST he was going between the 35s.

  • Scharfinator

    34-22 Is the combined record of the team’s we’ve beaten this year. These Bears confound me.

    #23 is the GOAT WOOOP SO FUN

    • SC Dave

      Does that include their 4 losses to us? I.e. 34-18 in other games?

      • Scharfinator


  • BearDown100393

    “But Bears will be very fun to watch in 2018.”

    A bold proclamation considering the coaching staff for next season remains undetermined.

    • ButtonShoes

      Didn’t Jeff say the same thing last year? He says it every year. He’s delusional.

      • BearDown100393

        He probably did.

        He always likes the Bears.

  • Bears-4-Ever

    Devin Hester will go down as one of my top 10 Bears to remember always. I’ll miss him and the special excitement he brought to the game. I truly hope he eventually makes it into the Hall of Fame. I’m glad I was able to watch his returns, a few in person. Best of luck Devin and THANK YOU.

    • BerwynBomber

      He’ll get in. Eventually. Even if it is by their Veteran’s committee or whatever they call the process after a guy runs out of ballot years.

      • CanadaBear

        If the old fuddy-duddies ever want to get the younger generation involved it might help to put the most electric player in the last 20 years into the HOF.

  • CanadaBear

    If anything will bring MB30 back it will be this post. He always turned into a rabid dog every time someone said anything nice about Devin. Why? Because he said he lost some love for the game. Never mind the fact that Devin scored a few more TD’s on returns for the Bears he SAID something. Always our biggest disagreement and he’s still dead wrong about it!

    • willbest

      I don’t mind Hester, who feeds on emotion, saying stuff like that. What pissed me off was his shots at his former team when we parted ways. That doesn’t negate any of the stuff he did while he was here though.

      • CanadaBear

        I always thought Devin was too honest for his own good. Not exactly a Rhodes scholar, he never really got the hang of the athlete speak, where you talk in cliches without really saying anything.

        • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

          yep. His problem was he said it out loud and on the record. Funny thing is there is not a soul on Earth that has not had doubts or lost love for their jobs at one point in time or another. To hold that against anyone is just wrong.

          • AlbertInTucson

            “Out loud and on the record.”

            Like the twitter-pissing contest between Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner.

    • Hester did say he mailed it in for like 2 yrs or something.

      To someone who gave it all (for free) on the football field, I could totally see MBs point.

      Same reason he didn’t like Alshon. He thought that dude was just out for himself.

      Dunno. I always saw Hester as a sorta kid, and Lovie was like his father figure.

      I’m also pretty sure he wasn’t the only one who quit on the team when Lovie left (looking at you Briggs).

      Then again, how can we judge some of them when they were playing for Trestman?

      • Irish Sweetness

        I was on board MB’s train too on that one. Hester was dead to me when he said that.

  • ButtonShoes

    John Skipper is OUT as head of ESPN. He resigned. Substance abuse issues. Wow.

    • AlbertInTucson

      So, you’re saying that John Skipper has….(wait for it)…, SKIPPED OUT!?

    • KentuckyBearsFan

      That’s funny. I thought ESPN lost all substance over a decade ago.

      • Scharfinator

        Well now we know where it went!

    • Russian Hacked Pacebot 3.0

      Substance abuse is code for upcoming Sexual impropriety/harassment charges

      • SC Dave

        He abused her substantially?

  • BerwynBomber

    “What happened yesterday was two great games ended with ridiculous rules influencing the outcome. The rules – defining catches/fumbling into endzone – should have been changed 3 years ago.”

    I am okay with the touchback rule but would also be okay with the league changing it. But let’s be honest: Carr fucked up. (Just as Cunningham did against the Cheese over a month ago.)

    If you’re gonna be a hero and reach for the pylon make sure you have a strong hold of the ball. Thing is, his run was enough for a first down. If he had secured the ball and gone out at the one yard line, they would have had :30 left and a TO. They could have ran three plays and most likely won the game.

    The PIT/J. James ruling was more objectionable.

    Even if the NFL wishes to maintain its “receiver must retain possession thru the ground” rule — and I can see some logic for doing so — it should not have applied to the PIT/James play because once James broke the plane of the goal line the play should have been over. It’s a TD. The ground was irrelevant. He had already made a football move and had clear possession when he crossed the line.

    • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

      I have absolutely no issue with the fumble/touchback rule. It is a consequence of fumbling. Don’t like then Don’t fumble.

      • BerwynBomber

        Yeah, that’s pretty much my view too. And about the only time that touchback ruling applies is on these pylon reaches.

    • willbest

      Yep that is the way I see it. The to the ground rule should only matter if possession wasn’t gained prior to being in the endzone. It makes sense to require a WR toe-tapping headed for a hard landing, who has yet to make a football move, to maintain control all the way through the hit.

      Its utter nonsense when there is a clear football move between the catch and the ground jarring.

      • BerwynBomber


  • CanadaBear

    My main issue with all of these challenges, replays, etc is the disruption to the game. I know it’s not a perfect solution but give the refs or studio refs 30 seconds to look at it. If it’s clear in 30 seconds or less, Awesome! If not, the ruling stands. This frame by frame bull shit that takes literally 5 minutes is killing the game and not really getting all that many calls correct. Just keep the game moving.

    • BerwynBomber

      That and the overturns because of microanalysis/overthinking.

      • CanadaBear

        At this point a better solution would be like when we were kids on close calls. You get this one, we get the next one. When that’s a better solution you know the old solution is horrible.

        • BerwynBomber

          Sandlot-wise the only thing I remember being remotely debatable were out of bounds plays. And even there we almost always honored the first call made, even it was debatable/bullshit.

          Honor. Not a word I often associate with my juvenile delinquent youth.

          • Yeah, sandlot rules were pretty consistent too.

            If a guy was calling ticky tack shit, well, other side would do the same, and that would be the game.

            If from the start it was “no blood, no foul’ well, button the chin strap cuz it’s gonna be a physical game.

          • BerwynBomber

            Yup. Played hoops that way too.

          • Dis Guy Trublinsky

            Same. I was a really mediocre Varsity basketball player. But I absolutely loved the early Gus Macker, 3v3, call your own fouls scene. When guys just wanted to play hard and didn’t call ticky tack bullshit.

            Late in my playing days it had also gone to shit though.

            Guess it just passed me by.

          • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

            same here with basketball, no blood no foul. Just laced up the shoes, strapped on the pads and helmet and went at it. (yeah we actually combined football and basketball)

    • SC Dave

      Also my biggest objection. There is a flow to a football game that adds a lot to my enjoyment of it.

      When that flow is nearly continuously interrupted, I just want to do something else.

      Part of why I buy gamepass.

      • CanadaBear

        Makes me crazy. I’d be OK with it if they got every call correct doing this but they don’t. Nothing like waiting 5 minutes to find out your team got fucked because the ball moved slightly after the guy caught it, made a move, crossed the goal line and finally hit the dirt. I’m not a fan of either team but the Steelers really got hosed on that one. I thought the same thing when Megatron got fucked when they played the Beloved.

      • AlbertInTucson

        There’s a flow to MOST sports and replay is destroying that flow everywhere it goes.

    • AlbertInTucson

      You’re singin’ my song, Canada.

      Real time playback only.

      No zooming.

      30 seconds, max.

      If it’s not an OBVIOUS gaffe, play on.

      Oh, and the on-field Ref has get’s no look and has no say in the review.

      Waste of time for him to look at the surface video and a conflict of interest to overturn himself or his crew.

      Just let the replay guy tell him what the call should be.

    • 30 seconds would be ideal.

      Enough to see if it’s blatant.

      If not, move on. I never know why the refs are still reviewing stuff while the announcers and everyone else already correctly judged the play 5 mins earlier.

      • BearDown100393

        Because you are being purposefully conditioned by the NFL to tolerate longer delayed action. And once tolerated, more airtime can be sold for advertisement.

        • But that’s the thing. A lot of times it’s just the announcers talking about multiple angles.

          Sometimes they cut to commercials, but it’s a lot of unnecessary booth jabber.

          • BearDown100393

            Give it time. Eventually you will miss Dick Stockton blathering incoherently about a disputed completion in lieu for Farmers Only Dating ads.

  • DaCoaches Mustache

    If only his wits matched his feet, he’d have been Antonio Brown.

  • AlbertInTucson

    And now, a word from our sponsor…
    Sunday’s NFL was marred by rules….
    …some of which belong in the shitter.
    Rules, apparently, written by fools…
    …and BTW, the 4-Letter needs a new “Skipper.”

  • BerwynBomber
    • ButtonShoes

      Barnwell’s certainly smokin’ something if he thinks that.

      • BearDown100393

        Apparently anyone other than John Fox coaching the Bears is a guarantee of becoming “the next Rams”.

    • I think I wrote something similar..in April.

      • BerwynBomber

        Personally, I think SF has the best chance. But Barnwell has them at #4. Bears at #1.

  • Did I miss anything?

    • BearDown100393

      The Bears clinched finishing last in the NFCN for the 4th season in the row.

      Other than that, nothing.

  • BearDown100393

    “They just looked at numbers.”


    Damn Data and all his number mumbo jumbo facts.

  • BearDown100393

    To those moaning about replay…..

    A. Vegas rules everything.
    B. Fantasy Football rules everything.
    C. See A &B

    Games don’t exist for “enjoyment”.

    Games exist for gambling.

    So enjoy your FF and 5 hour boring football “games”

  • On and FF note…Looks like I beat Artoo in the semi-finals.

    It’ll be funny if I win Da League with the QBs I had. The illustrious list includes.

    Alex Smith
    And the latest, Foles

    Alex Smith and Keenum ended up being gems. McCown too before he went down.

    Looks like Bears 505 will move to the finals to face me.

    Rivers-Keenan combo finally fizzled for Sac at the worst possible time.
    And starting Simean (-1) was a death knell.

    • Sactowns#1

      That Simean injury just killed my team. We came on with a roar and went out with a whimper.

      • Yeah, that’s bad ass luck.

        Simean wasn’t tearing it up . but -1 ouch.

        That’s when the FF gods kick in.

        And 505 had a down week too. Def could’ve taken him down. Deum.

  • Juan Stone

    Hence, the reason Dave Toub hasn’t gotten a HC gig yet? It was mostly Hester?

    • KentuckyBearsFan

      Nah. Toub’s teams also had the best coverage units for kickoffs and punts. Like tops in the league.

  • BerwynBomber

    Btw, after watching Sat night’s LAC/KC game I lean toward Rivers NOT ever making the HoF. He’s been good to very good most of his career but never truly great.

    I wouldn’t vote Eli in either. He’ll be remembered for his two SBs and the runs they included. That’s enough. He was never great.

    • BearDown100393

      One game swings the opinion?

      • Nah, it just adds to the River’s negative. That he’s a CHOKER.

        The passing stats under Goodell will inflate any QB.

        Rivers is like Peanut.

        Very good, border line great, but IMO has to win the SB to truly be HOF.

        If he had Peyton type stats, maybe he doesn’t need that ring, but he’s never been at that level.

    • willbest

      A QB in the QB era needs a SB ring for even meriting consideration imo.

      • BerwynBomber

        I still think a Marino or Kelly could get in this era. But like those two you either have eye-popping stats (Marino) or a ton of team success (Kelly) just short of winning a ring.

        Peyton would have gotten in (1st ballot) even w/out his SBs.

        • willbest

          Really? You don’t think if Peyton Manning instead of being 14-13 were say 11-15 in the playoffs with no SBC wins and only 1 AFCC win people wouldt take a step back and think, “Sure he has the regular season record, but he basically ran up that margin on awful AFCS teams for a decade. When he has to play real teams, when it matters, he is a sub .500 choke artist?”

          I doubt he is 1st ballot without the SB titles.

          • BerwynBomber

            Yup. Still would have been in. He won how many MVPs and Division titles on his rez? W/out the SBs he would have been like a Marino/Kelly combo.
            Still a slam dunk.

    • Heard Rivers choked like he always does.

      Agree. Neither him or Eli belong in the HOF

      • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

        both FUTURE HOFers!!!

      • Irish Sweetness

        If choking is a factor then Peyton Manning should be nowhere near the hall of fame.

    • BuddhaJoe

      Rivers is Cutler with a competent supporting cast. Neither should make it.

      • Irish Sweetness

        What were Rivers’ qualifications for the HoF?

      • BerwynBomber

        His #s are ton better. Plus, I don’t remember Rivers having a badass D or unreal STs.

        • willbest

          That is what I thought. If Rivers joined the Bears in 2004, there would be 2 more Lombardi trophies in halas hall.

          • BerwynBomber

            Don’t know about that BUT we certainly would have been in a few more post-seasons.

            Rivers was too inconsistent to be in the HoF. But his ceiling was much higher than Cutty’s. He had four seasons of a +100 passer rating. And I believe his career PR is better than Cutty’s best year PR.

            It’s a silly comparison.

        • BuddhaJoe

          No but having Antonio Gates alone gives him better than Cutler ever had. Let alone the coaching that either sucked or was washed up and outdated.

          • BerwynBomber

            The Jay Cutler Excuse Tree. ‘Tis the season. Hang an ornament.

      • fishing florida

        rivers is no where near cutler. jay has a much better ass.

  • BuddhaJoe

    That might be my 2nd favorite highlight reel behind Butkus just straight up mauling people like you can’t do in the NFL anymore.

    • CanadaBear

      The Gale Sayers highlight reel is pretty awesome too.

  • That Guy

    Devin Hester absolutely belongs in the HOF. But more than any of the stats above, he belongs because of the Superbowl return. That’s the kind of “fame” that gets votes. When you couple that with the numbers above… he deserves it.

    For me, Peanut and Hester making Canton would be just wonderful. They both deserve it IMHO – Hester for being the best ever at his position, Tillman for basically re-inventing his position with the Peanut Punch, but I doubt either of them gets in any time soon. The 20th best pass rusher or 20th best QB still has more eye catching stats than solid contributors like those guys.

    • willbest

      Peanut might have been the best FF among CBs, but that is too much of a niche. You need multiple years of shutdown status.

      Hester was just all around good for the sport. Incidentally, Goodell trying to make that phase of the sport as boring as possible is good for Hester’s eventual admittance as a senior inductee or whatever. It will basically preclude anybody from ever looking as good as he did.

      • That Guy

        Peanut has some great turnover stats as well. But for whatever reason turnovers aren’t considered as cool as being a shutdown guy. What’s odd about that is the HOF is usually all about stats, but shutdown guys don’t really produce numbers that are easy to quantify.

    • BuddhaJoe

      Tillman won’t make it. Love the guy but he won’t.

    • Irish Sweetness

      Had Devin been any kind of a receiver he probably gets in. Unfortunately, in trying to make him into a receiver they strangled the end of his career and stunted his stats.

    • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

      others have had SB returns, for even longer distances, like desmond Howard and Jacoby Jones. I would say it helps a little but the numbers are the driving factor not a SB return.

    • BerwynBomber

      Peanut? No way. He made one PB his entire career. Briggs arguably has a better chance and he ain’t getting in either.

      Lach and Hester will be the two from the most recent era. Well, Pep too if you want to consider him a Bear.

      • SC Dave

        Pep is a Panther. That’s why he went back to finish there. Oh, and he’s having a fine season, BTW.

  • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

    Is there anyone in TB? I need someone to run over to the stadium and “Tonya Harding” Devonta Freeman for me

    • Irish Sweetness

      I can’t wait to see that movie.

      • AlbertInTucson

        I can.

  • BearDown100393

    I hate Cleveland.

  • Would’ve been nice to have Poe.
    Makes a great FB to bout.

    Oh well.

    Not like Fox would’ve used him in that way anyways .

  • I remember Sims was supposed to be the next Forte coming out of college.

    Not so much.

    Stupid coaches make stupid decisions.

    Bucs should’ve ran up and snapped it before ATL can challenge.

    It’s these small details which change games.

  • BerwynBomber

    Koetter smelling the axe?

    Might be a decent OC candidate for a team. Only fear would be how he stabbed Lovie in the back. Might be a snake.

    Wouldn’t hold Winston against him. The latter seems like a knucklehead w/ TO issues.

  • Oh, that’s the Conte we know.

    Getting trucked and hanging on for dear life.

    However, he must’ve gotten a bionic shoulder.

    Funny how he doesn’t leave by halftime of every game when not on the Bears.

    • fishing florida

      Conte is one of my all time favorite bears.

  • Pretty Boy Assassin

    If you haven’t seen this clip from the Fudge/Newtons game, you gotta: https://twitter.com/MySportsUpdate/status/942579192591540224

    • AlbertInTucson

      I HAD seen.

      Hilarious to watch Matthews getting pantsed.

  • AlbertInTucson

    Al the Cab Driver, to me: “Why do you know so much about the Bears?”

    Just to be CLEAR here, I do NOT drive a cab.

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