(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the John Turney interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 77: Football Historian John Turney Returns To The Show | Spreaker)
Pro Football Hall-of-Fame voters have been reluctant to act on specialists, with only three inducted since Canton opened its doors in 1963 and only one – kicker Jan Stenerud --- a first-ballot choice. So where does that leave former Bears’ and Falcons’ star Devin Hester?
We’re about to find out.
The all-time leading scorer among return specialists, Hester is one of 122 preliminary candidates for the Hall’s Class of 2022. Voters will reduce their ballots to 25 semifinalists by the end of this month, and Hester is a favorite to be one of them – at least, according to historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal.
Furthermore, Turney believes Hester is a cinch to reach Canton. Not next year. But soon.
“There’s a difference if you really dig into the stats,” he said on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast (fullpressradio.com). “I think the difference between Hester and everybody else is … the number of touchdowns. (They’re) just off the charts.”
No argument there. Hester has 20 return TDs (including the playoffs), 14 via punts and six on kickoffs. That’s six more than everyone else, with four more punt returns than runner-up Eric Metcalf.
“With 14 return touchdowns,” said Turney, “it’s six more than Rick Upchurch and eight more than Billy Johnson. And the percentage of touchdowns vs. kicks is higher than both of those as well. And he was more effective as a kicker returner than either of those two.”
OK, but neither Upchurch nor Johnson is in the Hall. In fact, neither has been a semifinalist, though Johnson – like Hester -- was named to the 100th and 75th anniversary teams and two consecutive all-decade teams.
Former Washington star returner Brian Mitchell isn’t in, either, and he’s second only to Jerry Rice in career all-purpose yards with 23,330. He also had 14 special-teams TDs (including playoffs) and nearly 8,000 more returns yards than Hester.
Yet, he, too, has never been a Hall-of-Fame semifinalist. So why would Canton voters break tradition and get behind Hester when they haven’t given Upchuch, Johnson, Mitchell, Metcalf, Mel Gray, Josh Cribbs, Dante Hall or any star returner a sniff? Easy, said Turney.
“Hester stand out in terms of impact,” he said. “(Look at the) touchdowns. I believe they kicked away a lot more from him, too. I think that’s one of the things that you can point to that’s an intangible. Or the eye test.
"He still got 14 punt (returns), even though they were trying to pin him in the corner or limit his returns. And he was doing it against really, really good athletes and really, really good special-teams coaches who were trying to scheme against him. So I think that’s the difference.”