Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson were kick returners but both were inducted into the Hall of Fame largely for their contributions as defensive backs, not returners. George Blanda and Lou Groza were exceptional placekickers, but both excelled at quarterback and offensive tackle respectively. Only one out Hall of Famer, Jan Stenerud, was a full-time specialist.
Enter the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester. The six-year veteran has been one of the most dangerous return threats in the league since he was drafted by the Bears. Yes, Hester does play wide receiver, but what scares opposing teams more: Hester the wide receiver or Hester the kick returner? It's a fairly easy question to answer.
On offense, Hester has been mediocre at best this season. He's struggled with drops at times and has just 22 receptions, 322 yards and one touchdown through Week 11. His best season came in 2009 when he caught 57 passes for 757 yards and 3 touchdowns.
But as a kick returner, Hester is a problem for other teams. He's returned one kickoff for a touchdown and two punts for touchdowns this season. He also is averaging a league-leading 20.1 yards on punt returners (minimum 10 returns). These numbers are nothing new for Hester, who has returned 12 punts for touchdowns and five kickoffs for touchdowns in his career.
Where Hester's real excellence lies is his ability to dictate opposing teams' game plans. Being able to control your opponents' decisions in the NFL is a great advantage. The vast majority of teams have resorted to kicking away from Hester on punts (although it's difficult to avoid Hester on kickoffs). He is on pace to return just 27 punts this season, which would be a career low for Hester in a 16-game season.
Hester is not necessarily a Hall of Famer — yet. His career is for from over, but if he can consistently maintain his production throughout the rest of his career, he should be considered.
Hester makes the case for kick and punt returners to gain more Hall of Fame consideration, but what about kickers and punters? Kickers are put under pressure on a regular basis with the team's fate resting on their foot in late-game situations. They are also the highest scoring players on the team.
The best specialists deserve more representation in Canton. Kickers are often the difference between winning and losing. Punters control the field position battle. Returners force an opposing team to alter their strategy and can change the course of a game in a matter of seconds.
Before retiring in 2004, Gary Anderson made 538 field goals and scored 2,434 points in his career — second all-time to Morten Andersen, who, with 2,544 points, will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013. However, Anderson hasn't been mentioned much for the Hall of Fame consideration despite his numbers being more impressive than Stenerud's.
In the other half of the kicking game, punters are relied upon to bail out the offense's ineptitude and force the opposing offense to drive the length of the field. If there was a record kept for average hang time, Ray Guy would be at the top. His punts routinely had five seconds of hang time. Guy, who is the only punter ever drafted in the first round, never had a punt returned for a touchdown. He retired in 1986, but neither he — nor any other punter — has been inducted.
While the majority of a team's success lies with its offense and defense, just ask the Patriots how vital special teams can be. That team owes three Super Bowls to Adam Vinatieri and his gamming-winng field goals. While the Bears would end up losing Super Bowl XLI, Hester gave them huge momentum to start the game by returning the opening kick. One of the keys to the Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV was Thomas Morstead's onside kick to begin the second half.
Special teams may not be as important as offense or defense, but they help separate winners from losers, and winning performers belong in the Hall of Fame.
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