Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Best Kick Returners in NFL History

By Brad Oremland

All stats current through the end of the 2010 NFL season.

I recently watched the NFL Films feature "Top Ten Return Aces." I love NFL Films. I believe both Ed Sabol and Steve Sabol should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Their contributions to the game are titanic, impossible to overstate. The "Return Aces" piece, like all NFL Films features, is engaging and fun, though I would have liked to see more uncut returns. The list, however, surprised me. Gale Sayers only seventh? Really? A couple of the selections might have even caused me to sort of, you know, yell at the television. Well, maybe not yell. Speak forcefully to.

I'm always thinking about NFL history, so I had in my head an idea of the top ten return men in history. In fact, I'll give it to you now:

1) Sayers
2) Brian Mitchell
3) Mel Gray
4) Devin Hester
5) Dante Hall
6) Desmond Howard
7) Billy "White Shoes" Johnson
8) Travis Williams
9) Rick Upchurch
10) Josh Cribbs

The NFL Films list looked a little bit like that, but not a lot. I'm an open-minded guy, so I thought to myself, "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I've been over/under-rating people all this time." So I decided to do some serious research. Who was right, me or NFL Films? Or a little of both, or neither? What you're about to read represents the results of personal observation, contemporary accounts, and intense statistical research.

There are three qualities I look for in a great return man: explosiveness (big plays), consistency (helping the team even when the big play isn't there), and longevity (productivity, sustaining greatness). It's worth mentioning that the final category basically eliminates everyone who played before 1950. Steve Van Buren was a fantastic returner — he averaged 26.7 yards per kickoff return and 13.9 per punt return, with a combined 5 TDs — and I've expressed my admiration for him a number of times , but he only had 110 total returns. I chose only four players with under 200 returns, none with fewer than Van Buren.

In my mind, a returner needs all three qualities (explosiveness, consistency, and longevity) to be great. A guy who averages 24 yards on KRs for a decade but never scores a touchdown isn't a great returner. A guy who finds the endzone a bunch of times, but regularly goes backwards and doesn't consistently give his team field position, is not a great returner. Someone who's amazing for a year or two? Those were the hardest to cut. But returning is so subject to one big play skewing the averages, and so many returners have one great year and then disappear, that I've tried to stay away from flashes of greatness. Also, the returners listed here all played in the NFL, so you won't find CFL legend Gizmo Williams on here. I did consider AAFC and AFL returners, but none of them made the cut. Buddy Young and Speedy Duncan were close.

These are, as best I can tell, the 20 finest kick returners in NFL history, along with a few others who deserve special mention. To put the stats below in context, kickoff return averages historically are 21.50 yards, with punt returns at 8.85 yards.

20. Leon Washington

2006-10, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks
174 KR, 4,447 yards, 25.56 average, 7 TD
86 PR, 848 yards, 9.86 average, 0 TD

Washington gets overlooked in this Cribbs-Hester Era, but he has already established himself as one of the greatest kickoff returners in history. In fact, only Cribbs has more KR TDs. That's right, Washington has more KR TDs than Sayers, Gray, Hester, everyone but Cribbs. His 25.6 average is impressive, as well. Washington has the potential to rise on this list very quickly. He's still young, and just had maybe his best return season (3 KR TD, career-high PR avg). Unlike many great returners, it doesn't appear that he will lose return opportunities because of increased playing time on offense.

19. Dave Meggett

1989-98, New York Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets
252 KR, 5,566 yards, 22.09 average, 1 TD
349 PR, 3,708 yards, 10.62 average, 7 TD

Most career punt return yards: 1. Brian Mitchell, 2. Dave Meggett.

This is the second version of this article. I had it half-finished, then I re-evaluated my interpretation of the statistics and substantially re-wrote the thing. In that first version, Meggett ranked 9th. His averages are good — especially for the era in which he played — and not too many people have 8 combined kick return TDs. But what really distinguishes Meggett is his consistency. He scored a return TD in each of his first six seasons. In the seventh, he set a career high for KR average, and the eighth, another TD.

That consistency, however, is the same reason Meggett dropped 10 spots in my revision. If you compare him to an average returner, Meggett's stats are terrific, because he returned 600 kicks and was consistently above average. But when we talk about the best ever, do we really want a guy who was "consistently above average," or someone who lit the world on fire, even if he was a little more up and down, or didn't play quite as long?

Meggett's career-high KR average was 25.4 yards. That's lower than Washington's career average. Meggett, in his best season, didn't do what Leon Washington does every year. That's not entirely fair, because Meggett was actually a better punt returner than kickoff returner. But even there, his averages are more "good" than "great," and he has all the little things going against him. He fumbled a lot, and he fair caught a lot. Fair catches make your average look better, because they don't count toward the average. So instead of a five-yard return, which helps the team but hurts your average, there's no return at all, which hurts the team but helps your average. Meggett fair-caught about a third of the punts that came his way.

Having written all that, I'm trying to explain why Meggett isn't in the top 10, but I wouldn't want to give anyone the idea that he was anything other than a gifted returner. During Meggett's first five seasons in the league, kickoff return averages never topped 19.5, and only 0.4% (1 out of 231) went for touchdowns. Meggett was not just an okay kickoff returner, he was among the best of his era. Not great, but certainly good. He was, however, an exceptional punt returner. Meggett just terrorized the NFC East in the early '90s.

18. Vai Sikahema

1986-93, St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles
235 KR, 4,933 yards, 20.99 average, 0 TD
292 PR, 3,169 yards, 10.85 average, 4 TD

The hardest era in modern history for kickoff returners was 1979-93. Historically, kickoff return averages are usually about 21.5 yards, and about six kickoffs out of every 1,000 are returned for touchdowns. During that 15-year depression, league-wide KR averages never reached 21 even once, and less than 0.4% of kickoff returns resulted in TDs. This trend finally reversed itself in 1994, when the league moved kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 30. Sikahema retired before the season.

Sikahema has the fewest return TDs of anyone on the list, and his averages don't appear exceptional at first glance. The reality is that Sikahema is one of the most consistently productive returners in history. He played in a tough era for returners, but never had a bad season. From 1986-93, the league averaged 19.4 yards on kickoff returns and 8.8 on punt returns. Sikahema actually averaged a yard and half over the league on KRs, and two over on PRs, adding a total of 945 yards above average for his teams.

17. Desmond Howard

1992-2002, Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions
359 KR, 7,959 yards, 22.17 average, 0 TD
244 PR, 2,895 yards, 11.86 average, 8 TD

The most famous play of Desmond Howard's career was a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI. That was the only KR TD of Howard's career. In fact, Howard is basically on this list for one season: 1996. During that year, Howard:

* Led the NFL in punt returns, PR yardage, PR average, and PR TDs.
* Set a single-season record for punt return yardage.
* In the playoffs, returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown.
* Set a Super Bowl record for punt return yardage.
* Tied a Super Bowl record for all-purpose yardage.
* Returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
* Became the first pure special teamer named Super Bowl MVP.

That's phenomenal, one of the great seasons by any returner in history. But apart from that one year, Howard was only a slightly above-average return man. His best seasons, as I see them, were '96, 2000, 2001, 1992, and 1998. Those seasons were good, but other than '00, when he made his only Pro Bowl, not really special. Howard excelled on the biggest stage, but he was only an average kickoff returner, and he didn't produce consistently.

Honorable Mention: Eric Metcalf

1989-2002, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers
280 KR, 5,813 yards, 20.76 average, 2 TD
351 PR, 3,453 yards, 9.84 average, 10 TD

Desmond Howard (1992-2002) and Eric Metcalf were contemporaries. You won't find Metcalf on the top-20 list; scroll down as far as you like, he's not in here. Eric Metcalf was a very good returner, but I don't see him among the very best all-time. Compared to Metcalf, Howard had a better kickoff return average, a better punt return average, and more return yards. Metcalf had more touchdowns, 13 to 10 (including postseason); he was more explosive than Howard. Their returning careers were about the same length, both between 600-650 returns. But Metcalf wasn't consistent. The primary job of a returner is to give his team good field position. Even the best returners don't score a lot of touchdowns, so the best way to help your team is to consistently gain yardage, and Metcalf didn't do that.

Eric Metcalf is 258th all-time in kickoff return average. He's 79th in punt return average. During Metcalf's career:

* NFL teams averaged 21.4 yards per kickoff return. Metcalf averaged 20.76.
* Teams averaged 9.6 yards per punt return. Metcalf was at 9.84.
* 0.64% of kickoff returns went back for touchdowns. Metcalf scored 2 KR TDs in 280 tries, 0.71%.
* 1.34% of punt returns went back for touchdowns. Metcalf scored 10 PR TDs in 351 tries, 2.80%.

Eric Metcalf was a pretty average kickoff returner and a very good punt returner. He didn't fair catch a lot, and his average would be higher if he had, but his numbers are big mostly because he had so many returns and he was always looking for the big play. There's nothing wrong with that, but sometimes you just have to take what's there. I know he had all those touchdowns, but I don't see how a guy who's not in the top 75 in KR or PR average is one of the top 20 returners in history.

16. Jack Christiansen

1951-58, Detroit Lions
59 KR, 1,329 yards, 22.53 average, 0 TD
85 PR, 1,084 yards, 12.75 average, 8 TD

Jack Christiansen is probably the greatest punt returner who ever lived. As a rookie, he averaged 19.1 yards per punt return, with 4 TDs — a single-season record (since tied). The next season, Christiansen averaged 21.5 yards per punt return (no typo — punt returns) with another 2 TDs. After that, PR averages plummeted, and opponents kicked away from him, but Christiansen remained one of the league's most effective returners.

I mentioned earlier that Vai Sikahema played at a time when league-wide KR averages were historically low. The same is true for Christiansen and punt returns. Normally, the average is about 8.85. From 1953-58, it was just 5.9. Christiansen's average during those years was 8.1, and he twice tied for the league lead in PR TDs.

The 12 greatest punt return seasons of all time, in chronological order:

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15. Michael Bates

1993-2003, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys
373 KR, 9,110 yards, 24.42 average, 5 TD
10 PR, 44 yards, 4.40 average, 0 TD

Solely as a KR man, I would probably rank Bates sixth all-time, but this list is for combined returning, so he sinks to this position. From 1996-99, he had one of the best four-year runs in history. During those seasons, the league averaged 21.9 yards per KR, with 0.7% of kickoffs returned for TDs. Bates averaged 26.4 per KR, with a 2.1% TD rate. Over a period of four years, 191 returns, he gave his team an extra 4.5 yards of field position per return, including three times as many KR TDs as an average returner. Compared to an average returner, that's an extra 900 yards and 3 touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl all four seasons.

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Unlike most returners, Bates sustained success over a decade-long career.

14. Terrence McGee

2003-2010, Buffalo Bills
207 KR, 5,450 yards, 26.33 average, 5 TD
0 PR

McGee is the only player on this list who has never returned a punt in the NFL. Since 1970, there are five players with at least 100 kickoff returns and a 26.0 average: Ellis Hobbs, Stefan Logan, Danieal Manning, McGee, and Justin Miller.

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Although he has become a very good cornerback and no longer sees much action on special teams, McGee is the only one who really sustained his success.

13. Bobby Mitchell

1958-68, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins
102 KR, 2,690 yards, 26.37 average, 5 TD
69 PR, 699 yards, 10.13 average, 3 TD

Bobby Mitchell was exceptional at everything. As a running back, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry. As a wide receiver, he twice led the NFL in receiving yards. He's in the Hall of Fame. Mitchell did not do a great deal of returning — he was just too valuable on offense — but he still scored 8 return TDs and posted superb averages. His KR average is fantastic, and that punt return average — good but not great — is misleading.

1953-60 was the worst era in history for punt returns. Mitchell only returned 6 punts after 1963, so let's look at 1958-63. During those years, the average punt return was just 7.6 yards, and less than 1.1% of all PRs went for touchdowns. Mitchell averaged 10.1 yards, 33% higher than the league average, and reached the end zone on 4.35% of the punts he fielded, almost four times the league average. As a rookie, Mitchell returned 14 punts for 165 yards (11.8 avg) and a touchdown. Those are good numbers in any era, but in 1958, league-wide PR average was just 5.7 yards, and there was only one other PR TD all year.

Devin Hester as a rookie in 2006: 47 PR, 600 yds, 12.8 avg, 3 TDs. Relative to the league average, Hester's line in 1958 is 47 PR, 394 yds, 8.39 avg, 1 TD. Alternatively, if we translate Mitchell's averages compared to the league, putting him in 2006 and giving him as many returns as Hester, here's what his season looks like: 47 PR, 844 yds, 18.0 avg, 10 TDs. Do I really believe Bobby Mitchell, as a rookie in 2006, would have averaged 18 yards per return and scored 10 PR TDs? Of course not. And Mitchell didn't return 47 punts, he returned 14. Still, that's a hell of a season. These comparisons are not entirely fair, but they're staggering all the same. And Mitchell was as good a kickoff returner as a punt returner. His low return total is the only thing keeping him out of the top 10. I'd be more inclined to move him up the list than down.

Best of the Rest: Hall of Famers

Many of the best returners prove so valuable on offense or defense that they don't remain returners. Darrell Green, who in his prime was the undisputed fastest man in the NFL, broke a rib on his punt return TD in the '87 playoffs, and only returned 12 more kicks in the final 15 years of his career. Thirteen current HOFers not in the top 20 scored multiple regular-season return TDs in their careers:

* The criminally underrated Steve Van Buren averaged 26.7 yards per KR and 13.9 per punt return, with a combined 5 TDs.

* Emlen Tunnell, the first African-American enshrined in Canton, is also often credited as the first purely defensive player in the Hall of Fame. It's true that Tunnell didn't play offense, but he was a major contributor on special teams, averaging 26.4 yards per KR and returning 5 punts for touchdowns.

* George McAfee has the highest PR average (12.78) of anyone with at least 75 returns. He also averaged 27.1 yards on kickoffs, and scored a combined 4 KR/PR TDs.

* Bullet Bill Dudley retired with a 12.2 PR average, scoring 4 KR/PR TDs. Both Dudley and McAfee had their careers interrupted by service in World War II.

* Pittsburgh Steeler great Rod Woodson scored a combined 4 KR/PR TDs, all in black and gold.

* Bob Hayes, the world's fastest man, averaged 25.3 yards per KR and 11.1 per punt return, with 3 PR TDs.

* Lem Barney averaged 25.5 yards per KR, with 3 KR/PR TDs.

* Jim Brown's successor in Cleveland, Leroy Kelly played mostly on special teams until Brown's retirement, with good averages on both KRs (23.5) and PRs (10.5), and 3 PR TDs.

* Mel Renfro averaged 26.4 yards per KR, with 3 KR/PR TDs.

* Do-everything Cardinal Charlie Trippi averaged an unreal 13.71 yards on punt returns, with 2 PR TDs in only 63 tries.

* 2010 inductee Floyd Little averaged 24.3 yards per KR and 11.0 per punt return, with 2 PR TDs.

* Packer legend Herb Adderley was a standout kickoff returner (25.7 avg, 2 TDs).

* Crazy Legs Hirsch returned both a kickoff and a punt for TDs in the AAFC.

12. Deion Sanders

1989-2005, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens
155 KR, 3,523 yards, 22.73 average, 3 TD
212 PR, 2,199 yards, 10.37 average, 6 TD

Deion Sanders is a polarizing figure, so I'd like to explain to his detractors why he rates as high as he does, and to his advocates why he's not in the top 10. Detractors first. Comparing Deion to someone like Desmond Howard, it's hard to understand when you look at their numbers why Sanders should rate ahead. Here are those numbers —

Howard: 359 KR, 7,959 yards, 22.17 average, 0 TD; 244 PR, 2,895 yards, 11.86 average, 8 TD
Sanders: 155 KR, 3,523 yards, 22.73 average, 3 TD; 212 PR, 2,199 yards, 10.37 average, 6 TD

It looks like Sanders was a slightly better kickoff guy, and Howard was a much better punt return man. Neither is true; in fact, Sanders was a much better kickoff returner, and Howard was a slightly better punt returner. Sanders did almost all of his kickoff returning from 1989-92, when the league average was 19.2 yards. Sanders was far above that mark (18.3%). Beginning in 1994, KR averages topped 21, and haven't been below since. Sanders did most of his kickoff returning when the league average was 19 yards; Howard did most of his when the average was 22.

Punt return averages were lower from 89-91, too — that's the period when Sanders was in the NFL and Howard was at Michigan — but the hidden yardage is really in fair catches. Howard fair caught almost twice as many punts as Deion. A fair catch doesn't count against your return average, but it gets no yardage for your team. A 3-yard return helps your team, but it hurts your average. Deion always tried to make a play when it was there. Howard fair caught anything he couldn't take back.

So why doesn't Sanders rank even higher? Well, partly just because he doesn't have a ton of returns; 367 is nothing to sneeze at, but Brian Mitchell had 1,070, with higher averages and more touchdowns. Okay, being below Brian Mitchell is nothing to be ashamed of, but great as he was, Deion is more "significantly above average" than "out of the ballpark," and most of the guys in the top 10 have ridiculous averages and crazy TD rates. The NFL Films piece ranked Sanders fourth. That's absurd. If he weren't an NFL Network employee with a great defensive résumé and top-notch name recognition, he wouldn't have been anywhere near that part of the list. Dave Meggett did nearly the same things as a returner, and he didn't make the top 10.

11. Ollie Matson

1952-66, Chicago Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles
143 KR, 3,746 yards, 26.20 average, 6 TD
65 PR, 595 yards, 9.15 average, 3 TD

Comparable to Bobby Mitchell, Matson was an explosive running back with good receiving skills, and a sensational kick returner. Like Mitchell, he played at a time when punt return averages were incredibly depressed, but still scored multiple TDs. And like Mitchell, he would probably be top-10 on this list if he'd been used a returner consistently.

An Olympic gold medalist in track (4 x 400 relay), Matson led the NFL in either KR TDs or PR TDs a total of five times. He had four seasons with multiple return TDs (1952, '54, '55, '58), which is tied for the best total ever (along with Eric Metcalf and Brian Mitchell). Matson and Gale Sayers are the only players in NFL history to return at least two kicks for touchdowns in each of their first three seasons. Matson missed the 1953 campaign to serve in Korea.

He died this Saturday, at age 80.

10. Travis Williams

1967-71, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams
102 KR, 2,801 yards, 27.46 average, 6 TD
13 PR, 213 yards, 16.38 average, 1 TD

In 1967, Travis Williams had the greatest season ever by a kickoff returner: 18 KR, 739 yards, 41.1 average, 4 TDs. Those are single-season records for average and touchdowns. Williams never replicated that level of success — no one has — but it wasn't a fluke. He scored three more return TDs in the next four seasons, and in '71 again led the league in KR average. A knee injury ended his career after that season.

An aura has grown around the Vince Lombardi Packers, and rightfully so. The championship-winning teams of 1961-62 and 1965-66 were exceptional. In 1967, though, the Packers went 9-4-1, only the third-best record in the 16-team NFL. Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor were gone. Bart Starr, 33, threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. Travis Williams was the second-leading touchdown scorer on that team, a key component of the Packers' final championship run.

The 12 greatest kickoff return seasons of all time, in chronological order:

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9. Dante Hall

2000-08, Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams
426 KR, 10,136 yards, 23.79 average, 6 TD
216 PR, 2,261 yards, 10.47 average, 6 TD

Hall was unusual, a player equally gifted on kickoff and punt returns. Actually, he was a little better on kickoffs, but he was a very good punt returner, as well. Think of the most famous return men in history. Gale Sayers, a kickoff guy, only returned 27 punts in his whole career. Hall returned that many in a season five times. Almost any great returner you name was distinctly better at one or the other. Mel Gray? Kickoffs. Eric Metcalf? Punts. Travis Williams? Kickoffs. Billy Johnson? Punts. The two best returners of this era? Josh Cribbs is better on kickoffs, Devin Hester on punts.

Hall from 2002-04 was otherworldly as a returner. In '02, he scored three return TDs and made the Pro Bowl. In '03, he led the NFL in everything. He had the longest kickoff return (100 yards), the longest punt return (93), the most KR TDs (2), the most PR TDs (2), the best PR average (16.3), and he led the league in all-purpose yards (2,446). That earned him both a trip to Hawaii and all-pro honors. But people forget that Hall wasn't a one-year wonder. In '04, he led the NFL in kickoff return yardage and scored 2 more KR TDs, giving him three straight years with multiple return TDs. Hall is fourth all-time in career KR yardage, and his 12 combined return TDs are tied for third all-time.

Best of the Rest: The American Football League

Top five AFL kick returners:

1. Chargers star Speedy Duncan, who also played with Washington after the merger, was the greatest return man in AFL history, returning four punts for TDs. He averaged 25.2 yards on KRs and three times led his league in PR average.

2. Dick Christy was off the charts in 1961 and '62. In '61, he led the AFL in PR yards (383), average (21.3), and TDs (2). The following season, he led in all of the same categories, with another 2 PR TDs, plus he led the AFL in KR yardage (824).

3. Hall of Fame RB Floyd Little was a great returner early in his career, averaging 26.1 yards on KRs and 13.1 on PRs in the AFL.

4. Noland Smith, Kansas City's 5'5," 154-lb. Super Gnat, was one of only four AFL players to score on both a KR and a PR. He averaged 26.8 yards on kickoff returns.

5. Bobby Jancik may have been the best kickoff returner in AFL history, but his only touchdown actually came on a punt return. Jancik had a great KR average (26.5) and by far the most KR yards in AFL history.

8. Abe Woodson

1958-66, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Cardinals
193 KR, 5,538 yards, 28.69 average, 5 TD
123 PR, 956 yards, 7.77 average, 2 TD

A world-record hurdler, Woodson ranks as perhaps the greatest kickoff returner in NFL history. I'd put him second or third, personally, but certainly he's in the conversation. Woodson and Lynn Chandnois are the only players to average at least 29 yards per KR in five different seasons. Actually, Woodson's average in 1961 was 28.96, but even if you don't round up, he's ahead of everyone but Chandnois. Highest career KR averages: Gale Sayers (30.6), Chandnois (29.6), Woodson (28.7). The highest in at least 100 returns is Woodson, and no one else is close.

Chandnois didn't make the final list. Why not? (1) His career was very short. (2) He was a miserable punt returner. Chandnois retired with a PR average of 4.7 yards. From 1951-52, the league averaged 10.1 yards per punt return, with the most PR TDs per team per game in history. Chandnois during those two years returned 29 punts for 166 yards (5.7), with no TDs. An average returner would have gained 293 yards and scored a touchdown.*

Chandnois was an exceptional kickoff returner — on 92 returns. Is Chandnois' 0.9 yard of return average worth Woodson's 101 extra returns? Obviously not. And Woodson was a good punt returner.

* Okay, 9/10 of a touchdown.

7. Devin Hester

2006-10, Chicago Bears
113 KR, 2,724 yards, 24.11 average, 4 TD
178 PR, 2,200 yards, 12.36 average, 10 TD

Probably the most feared returner in history, certainly the most feared in many years, he's also the all-time record-holder for combined kick return touchdowns (14). Devin Hester is a good kickoff returner, but he has truly made his mark as a punt returner. As a kickoff man, Hester had one great season, his rookie year of 2006, when he averaged 26.4 yards, scoring 2 regular season TDs and another to open Super Bowl XLI. Since then, he's had his moments, but also got replaced on kickoffs by teammate Danieal Manning. Overall, his KR record is nice, but there are a dozen contemporaries who are just as good.

As a punt returner, however, Hester is among the most successful not just of his generation but in all of history. What's strange about Hester's punt returning career is its shape. He was a fantastic returner in '06 (12.8 avg, 3 TDs) and '07 (15.5 avg, 4 TDs), then terrible in '08 (6.2 avg, career-high 14 fair catches, 3 fumbles) and poor in '09 (7.8 avg) before rebounding with a sensational 2010 campaign (17.1 avg, 3 TDs). Hester is the only player in history with three seasons of 3 or more PR TDs. In fact, he's the only player with two such seasons.

Early in his career, Hester had a fumble problem, but it seems to have been resolved.

6. Brian Mitchell

1990-2003, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants
607 KR, 14,014 yards, 23.09 average, 4 TD
463 PR, 4,999 yards, 10.80 average, 9 TD

All-time NFL leaders in all-purpose yardage:

1. Jerry Rice, 23,546
2. Brian Mitchell, 23,316
3. Walter Payton, 21,803
4. Emmitt Smith, 21,579

Brian Mitchell is the most productive return man in history. He is the NFL's all-time leader in both kickoff return yards and punt return yards, and he is 2nd all-time in combined return TDs. Whereas Devin Hester has had three amazing years, Mitchell had 14 good ones. At this point in time, Mitchell has helped his teams more.

Ollie Matson, Bobby Mitchell, and Brian Mitchell are the only NFL players who have scored at least three each of rushing, receiving, kickoff return, and punt return TDs.

5. Joshua Cribbs

2005-10, Cleveland Browns
305 KR, 7,863 yards, 25.78 average, 8 TD
123 PR, 1,309 yards, 10.64 average, 2 TD

Why is Cribbs ahead of Hester?

Partly, it's plain production. He has 428 returns, Hester has 291. Cribbs has five seasons with over 1,000 KR yards; Hester has none. There has been exactly one season in which Hester had more combined return yards than Cribbs: 2010. Every other year of Hester's career, Cribbs has been more productive. 2007 is a good example. Hester that year set a career-high for return TDs, with a total of 6 (2 KR, 4 PR), but Cribbs had a better season.

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Compared to an average returner (22.6 KR, 9.1 PR), Cribbs gave the Browns an extra 474 yards of field position on kickoff returns and 132 yards on punt returns. That's more than 600 yards, the highest single-season total for any returner in history. Hester actually cost the Bears 39 yards on kickoffs, though he added 269 on punt returns, a total of +230. That's great, but it's less than half of Cribbs' total. Hester has a three-TD advantage (6-3), but 376 yards of field position will get you more than three TDs. Cribbs had a better year.

That's the story of their careers. Cribbs has 9,172 yards to Hester's 4,924. The extra 4,000 yards are easily worth 4 TDs. Hester has more TDs than Cribbs because Hester is a great punt returner. Only 6 out of every 1,000 kickoffs gets returned for a touchdown, compared to 11 out of every 1,000 punts. It's almost twice as easy for returners to score TDs on punts as on kickoffs. Cribbs has the most KR TDs of any player in NFL history. He's just as exceptional a kickoff returner as Hester is a punt returner, and he has returned many more kicks. That makes him more valuable.

The 12 greatest combined kick return seasons of the 2000s, in chronological order:

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Honorable mentions: Darrick Vaughn (2000), Desmond Howard (2000), Steve Smith (2001), Dante Hall (2002), Dante Hall (2004), Jerome Mathis (2005), Adam Jones (2006), Andre' Davis (2007). Best returner not listed: Leon Washington, by far. His best seasons have been 2007 and 2010, with 3 KR TDs each year.

Best of the Rest: The All-America Football Conference

The AAFC ran from 1946-49, producing the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, and Cleveland Browns (who became NFL champions in 1950, immediately following the partial merger). The greatest returners in AAFC history:

1. Legendary New York Yankees tailback Spec Sanders averaged 27.4 yards on KRs, and 15.3 on PRs, with a combined 3 TDs. He was also a decent passer, exceptional runner, and sensational defensive back. He played only four seasons (1946-48, '50), but is one of the greatest players not in the Hall of Fame.

2. Buddy Young, another Yankee (as well as a hero for the Colts in the '50s), posted great averages (27.2 KR, 16.3 PR) and returned 3 kicks for touchdowns during his AAFC career. Young was equally productive in the NFL, averaging 27.9 yards on kickoff returns and scoring another 3 return TDs. Young was a more accomplished returner than Sanders and arguably should be on the Top 20 list, but purely on their AAFC careers, he's second.

3. Forgotten Buffalo Bills RB Chet Mutryn — probably one of the most underrated players in the history of football — had a 27.7 KR average and scored both KR and PR touchdowns.

4. Billy Hillenbrand, a successful receiving RB with the Colts, joins Sanders and Young as the only players with 3 kick return TDs in the AAFC.

5. Before jumping leagues and becoming a Hall of Fame receiver with the NFL's Rams, Crazy Legs Hirsch averaged 27.0 yards on KRs and 13.6 on PRs with the AAFC's Chicago Rockets, scoring both KR and PR TDs.

4. Gale Sayers

1965-71, Chicago Bears
91 KR, 2,781 yards, 30.56 average, 6 TD
27 PR, 391 yards, 14.48 average, 2 TD

Gale Sayers' record for kickoff return average (30.6) will probably never be broken. Since 1994, when the NFL moved kickoffs to the 30-yard line, only seven players have averaged 30.6 yards per KR in a season, and no one has done it more than once. Sayers also has the best punt return average (among players with at least 20 attempts) since 1950.

He is almost certainly the most exceptional kick returner who has ever played, but I can't rank him any higher than this with so few returns. If all you're looking for is peak, Gale Sayers is the greatest returner in history. But if longevity matters at all, there are better choices. Other players have been nearly as good for much longer.

3. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson

1974-88, Houston Oilers, Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins
123 KR, 2,941 yards, 23.91 average, 2 TD
282 PR, 3,317 yards, 11.76 average, 6 TD

I didn't expect Johnson to rank so high. He was a legend, a showman, a flashy player who captured the public's imagination. You almost expect such players to be overrated. Johnson, to my surprise, is not overrated.

He makes this list primarily as a punt returner, but start with kickoffs, which he only did from 1974-77. In those four seasons, Johnson scored two KR TDs and was well above the league average of 21.9. He was a very good kickoff returner. As a punt returner, though, he was something more than good. He was a legend in his own time. Part of that is that is the nickname, and a lot of it is the end zone celebration, but mostly, it's 6 PR TDs and a 13.73 average before his knee injury.

Johnson's punt return numbers before the injury are mind-blowing: 143 PR, 1,963 yds, 13.7 avg, 5 TDs. If the injury had ended his career, Johnson would have by far the highest punt return average in history, almost a full yard ahead of George McAfee (12.78). It almost did end his career. He barely played in '79 and '80, spent '81 in the CFL. He made it back to the NFL and played seven more years, even made the Pro Bowl in 1983, but he was just a good returner, not a true standout any more.

2. Rick Upchurch

1975-83, Denver Broncos
95 KR, 2,355 yards, 24.79 average, 0 TD
248 PR, 3,008 yards, 12.13 average, 8 TD

Upchurch and Johnson were contemporaries. It wasn't easy to choose between them. Both averaged 27.1 yards per kickoff return as rookies, then stopped returning kickoffs after a few years to focus on punt returning and become moderately successful wide receivers. Johnson had a longer career and more yards, Upchurch had better averages. They each scored 8 return TDs.

I rate the kickoff returning as basically equal, maybe a slight edge for Johnson because he had more yards and a couple of touchdowns. But ultimately, this is about comparing two of the greatest punt returners in the history of football. Obviously, I've put Upchurch ahead. His average is almost 4/10 of a yard higher, and he has more TDs in fewer returns. The gap between them is razor-thin, though, and I wouldn't argue with someone who ranked Johnson ahead.

Here's a list of everyone with at least 200 punt returns and an average of 12.0 or better: Rick Upchurch.

That's the list. Closest behind him are Desmond Howard (11.86) and Johnson (11.76), with Devin Hester (12.36) in sight at 178 returns. No one else is even in the neighborhood. I wrote earlier that Jack Christiansen was "probably the greatest punt returner who ever lived." I do believe that's right, but Christiansen returned 85 punts in his career, about a third of Upchurch's total. The greatest punt returner with more than a handful of returns is Upchurch, by far.

A couple of comments in the NFL Films piece mentioned that Upchurch may have benefitted from the thin air in Denver and the booming kicks that resulted. Billy Johnson played on artificial turf, in a dome. Hester plays at a time when punt return averages are half a yard higher than in Upchurch's era. Howard played when they were a full yard higher. Upchurch didn't have any more advantages than other great punt returners.

1. Mel Gray

1986-97 New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions, Houston/Tennessee Oilers, Philadelphia Eagles
421 KR, 10,250 yards, 24.35 average, 6 TD
252 PR, 2,753 yards, 10.92 average, 3 TD

Everyone who remembers him knows that Mel Gray was a great returner, but I suspect very few, asked to name the greatest return man of all time, would answer that it was Gray. His stats are good, even great, but he doesn't overwhelm you with sheer numbers like Brian Mitchell, he doesn't have mind-blowing averages like Gale Sayers, and he doesn't have Devin Hester's touchdown record. He's everyone's top 10, nobody's number one.

Gray is the most consistent returner in history: other than his last season, at age 36, he never had a bad year, ever. That's just unheard of in a long career. Pick anyone else on this list, and at some point he had a down season. Maybe not Sayers or Upchurch, but they only returned kicks for like six seasons each. The table below shows Gray's production as compared to the league average, and how many yards he added compared to an average returner.

Chart

That's 10 seasons, including nine in a row, where Gray gave his team a 100-yard advantage compared to an average returner. Altogether, it's +2,201 yards, and we're not comparing him to replacement level (a guy off the street), but to league average, to a guy who's better than 14 teams' return men. Gray's mark is the best in history, and it's the best by a lot. The top 10:

Chart

Some other names of interest: Michael Bates (+1,008), Gale Sayers (+954), Allen Rossum (+866), Devin Hester (+757), Tim Brown (+628), Terry Metcalf (+617), Herschel Walker (+605), Steve Van Buren (+515), Jack Christiansen (+443), Lynn Chandnois (+429), Tim Dwight (+377), Pacman Jones (+278), Bill Dudley (+223), Emlen Tunnell (+183), Eric Metcalf (+141).

You probably notice a strong resemblance between that list and the order I've chosen. It's not exact, of course — this isn't a math problem — and explosive players like Sayers and Hester change games in a way that slow-and-steady does not. They're true impact players.

But look how far ahead of the pack Mel Gray is. He's 500 yards in front of Mitchell, 1,000 yards up on everyone else. And Gray was plenty explosive. The word "consistent" can seem like a curse when you're talking about the very top-level talent, because it implies that nothing stands out. Gray made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, the 1990s All-Decade Team and the USFL All-Time Team. His 1991 and '94 seasons are among the finest by any returner in NFL history.

In 1991, an average kickoff return went 18.9 yards. This is the only season in history in which the average dipped below 19. The five lowest:

1991: 18.89
1990: 19.13
1989: 19.40
1992: 19.42
1987: 19.43

Gray was in his prime during the worst period in history for kickoff returners, yet his 24.35 career average is among the best in history, eighth-highest of anyone with at least 200 returns. He is tied for third-most KR TDs in history, behind only Cribbs and Washington. Gray is the only player in history to combine explosiveness, consistency, and longevity at the highest level. His speed was stunning, the sort that drives opponents crazy, because film study alone can't prepare you for it. He was among the top returners in the league year-in, year-out, and he kept this up for 13 seasons (including two in the USFL). It is my belief that Mel Gray was the greatest kick returner in the history of professional football.

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