“I told my wife it’s pretty much my last year,” he said after returning five kickoffs and a punt during that Jan. 14 playoff game. “I was hoping for a run to the Super Bowl. The only thing that I left out of this game is walking away without getting a ring. It’s tough.”
Hester will go down as probably the best kick returner the game ever has seen, but is that enough to get him into the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look at his candidacy:
— Has 19 career punt/kickoff returns for touchdowns, plus one return of a missed field goal.
— Holds the NFL record with 14 career punt-return touchdowns. No other player has more than 10.
— Made four Pro Bowls and was a first-team all-pro three times.
— His 11,028 combined yards on kickoff and punt returns ranks just eighth in NFL history.
— Returned five kickoffs for touchdowns, the same number as non-Hall of Famers Percy Harvin, Allen Rossum and Jacoby Jones. Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington hold the NFL record with eight, and neither is likely to be enshrined in Canton.
— Never had more than 57 receptions in one season. Never had more than four receiving touchdowns in one season.
— Over his last four NFL seasons, Hester primarily was used only on kickoff and punt returns, and in one of those seasons (2015) he played in only five games. Between the 2013 and 2016 seasons, he had just 38 receptions, and they all came in 2014.
We can also compare Hester’s career numbers with those of Brian Mitchell, considered the best kick returner of a previous generation.
Mitchell (1990-2003): 4,999 punt return yards (1st all-time), 10.8 yards per punt return (t-29th), 9 punt-return TDs (3rd), 14,014 kickoff return yards (1st), 23.1 yards per kickoff return (t-164th), 4 kickoff-return TDs (t-19th), 23,330 all-purpose yards (2nd).
Hester (2006-2016): 3,695 punt return yards (3rd), 11.7 yards per punt return (t-8th), 14 punt-return TDs (1st), 7,333 kickoff return yards (11th), 24.9 yards per kickoff return (t-67th), 5 kickoff-return TDs (t-8th), 14,455 all-purpose yards (43rd).
Mitchell’s aggregate numbers are higher by virtue of sheer volume: He had 460 more kickoff/punt returns than Hester. But Mitchell also was used more in non-special teams situations, with double-digit carries and receptions in every season between 1993 and 2000, and was much more durable despite that. Hester had all of 36 carries over his entire career.