RENTON - A closer look at Devin Hester's numbers make it undeniable - with apologies to Deion Sanders - the Chicago Bears' return man is the best in NFL history.
Hester is the league’s career leader with 14 combined kickoffs and punts returned (10 punts and four kickoffs) for touchdowns in his five NFL seasons. The 28-year-old earned his third Pro Bowl selection as a returner this season by returning three punts for scores, including an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown in Seattle’s 23-20 win at Chicago.
He set an NFL record in punt return average (17.1) and would have led the league in kick return average (35.6) had he enough kickoffs to qualify.
Hester’s return ability helped the Bears’ offense lead the league in average starting field position at the 33.7-yard line.
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“He’s a great football player that has proven himself to be the best ever, and you better take note of that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “You could try and ignore the fact, but he’s proven he’s the greatest player at that spot who’s ever played the game.”
While Hester is one of the best returners ever, the guy Seattle has returning punts and kicks isn’t too shabby.
Leon Washington leads the league in kickoff returns for scores this season with three, and had a near-touchdown on an 84-yard punt return against Carolina.
Washington’s seven career touchdowns on kickoff returns is one behind leader Josh Cribbs. His two kickoff returns for touchdowns against San Diego earlier this year is a franchise record for one game.
“I’m always looking to change the momentum of the game, and to put our team in position so we can score easy on offense or hold them back on defense,” Washington said. “So I look forward to the opportunity every time I touch it.”
Washington and Hester have a friendly rivalry from their high school days in Florida, when both were highly recruited defensive backs – with Washington choosing Florida State and Hester attending Miami.
That rivalry extends to Washington’s wife, Charity, and Hester’s girlfriend, WNBA player Tamara James, who have been exchanging texts this week.
“It’s been friendly,” Washington said. “I made sure that my wife made sure it was friendly. I told her, you reply back in a friendly way.”
Seattle special-teams coach Brian Schneider said Hester and Washington are talented returners who have natural running ability, but get it done in different ways.
“Leon is really a catch and go attack,” Schneider said. “And Devin is too, but sometimes he likes to survey stuff, and he can make a cut – against us he made a cut from like 20 yards away – and he just had the vision to see that thing and know what he wanted to do, and really got our guys that were a long ways away.”
“This game is not about me and Devin Hester,” Washington said. “It’s all about the team. I just look forward to going out and doing my part of the game to give us a chance to win.”
The Seahawks will try to contain Hester by angling punts to the sideline and pinning him on one side of the field. Schneider said it’s important for his players to remain aggressive when trying to bring down Hester.
“Once you get tentative, that’s when he’s really good,” Schneider said. “And not that he’s not good when you’re not tentative, but when you see breakdowns is when guys are tentative. So we’ve just got to go and let it all hang out.
“He can make you look really bad. He makes everybody look really bad, but when you’re hesitant and playing on your heels, that’s when you get into a lot of trouble.”
Carroll still plans to stay true to his motto, “always compete,” stating he will kick the ball to the dangerous return man.
“We’re kicking the ball and he’s going to get it,” Carroll said. “And we need to do a great job of covering, and doing all the things we need to do to take care of that. That’s going to happen in that game.”
Chicago head coach Lovie Smith expects nothing less.
“Eventually you have to kick it to him,” Smith said. “I just don’t see how you could go an entire game without it. I’m told that they plan on doing it. We don’t see it any other way.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks
TWO of a kind
The Bears, with Devin Hester, and the Seahawks, with Leon Washington, have two of the best returners in the NFL. A closer look:
* insufficient attempts for league ranking