Kick-offs, rule changes and the year Devin Hester became irrelevant

If I’m Devin Hester, I’m pissed.

Most of you football geeks remember Devin Hester.  He was the Chicago Bears return man who was on the verge of revolutionizing the game.

Then came a 2011 rule change making Devin Hester’s path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame veer substantially off its course.

In 2011, as the league (finally) became more conscious about its concussion problem, thanks in large part to Bennet Omalu’s brain research and the inordinate amount of its former players killing themselves due to CTE, the league decided to do something about it.

After determining that high speed collisions were responsible for so many of these head-related injuries, the NFL opted to change the game in a way they hoped would at least somewhat reduce the likelihood of this happening.

The league got rid of the kick-off return. 

Well, it didn’t so much eliminate the return as much as it eliminated the likelihood of the return.  Starting in 2011, NFL teams would now kick off from the 35-yard line.  With legs a-strengthening, this meant that most teams’ kickers would reach the end zone, allowing for more touchbacks and fewer returns, resulting in fewer high-speed, helmet to helmet tackles. 

The impact was immediate.  In 2010, prior to the rule change, Baltimore led the league in touchbacks, kicking them with 46% accuracy.  The Raiders ranked second with 31%, thanks to the big leg of Sebastian Janikowski. No other team kicked touchbacks over 30% of the time.  After the 2011 rule change, 25 NFL teams kicked touchbacks with greater than 30% accuracy.

Selfishly, fans complained.  One of the more exciting aspects of the game had suddenly been removed.   The change in overall scoring per game was negligible but the kickoff returns had become a thing of the past.

As was Devin Hester’s, and so many others’, usefulness from that position.

In 2022, Nyheim Himes returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.  In 2021, Kene Nwangwu did so twice for the Vikings.  You’d have to go back to 2015 to find another player who did so twice in the same year, Cordarelle Patterson.

From 1994, when they changed the kickoff to the 30-yard line, to 2010, the year before they moved it forward, the league saw multiple players lead the league in kickoff returns for multiple touchdowns.  Names like Jacoby Ford, Josh Cribbs, Leon Washington, Terrence McGee, Dante Hall, Michael Bates, Chad Morton, Michael Lewis, and others were all guys that stood between 5’8” and 5’11”, weighed between 155 and 180 pounds and were on rosters specifically to return kick-offs for touchdowns or at least present the threat of doing so.  They would double as tailbacks or wide receivers, but their usefulness came when they could break a game open, potentially returning a kickoff 90-plus yards for paydirt.

Until the NFL all but eliminated this play from the playbook.

In 2006 and 2007, his first two years in the league, Devin Hester returned four kickoffs for touchdowns, his longest 96 and 97 yards respectively.  After 2011, he didn’t return a single kickoff for a touchdown.  Those extra five yards made a world of difference.

In 2024, despite continuously drawing record-setting television ratings, the league felt it could use a little more excitement.  Understanding that fans like offense, or at least the increased opportunity for it, the league has once again changed its kickoff rules, this time borrowing from the XFL.  I’d say that somewhere Vince McMahon is smiling but we know that’s not the case.  As we’ve read in testimonies lately, he’s probably doing something else.

Fans will soon see how this will affect the game, whether scoring will go up, whether the return position can once again become a special teams’ weapon, whether rosters will have to adjust both offensively and defensively and whether excitement will return to a now defunct play.

But it’s too late for Devin Hester, who must still be a little miffed.  Hester was on pace to perhaps become the NFL’s all-time return man.  That honor currently belongs to the still-active Cordarrelle Patterson, whose giant stature seemed unphased by any rule change.  Patterson started playing in 2013, two years after the rule change.  He leads all NFL players with 9 career kickoff touchdown returns.  Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington, who both retired in 2014, are tied with 8.  Of those two, only Washington had a single kickoff return for a touchdown after the 2011 rule change.

And so, in their never-ending quest to dominate ratings, the NFL will change the kickoff rule once again, meaning we may soon see a Devin Hester reincarnate as teams may have to leave a roster spot for a sure-handed speedster.

Getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame isn’t easy.  Aside from Cooperstown, which no longer allows in any of its greats, Canton remains one of the hardest halls to gain entry.  Return men don’t get in.  But Hester was on pace.  Bust or not, there was a time when Hester, and others like him, ensured you did not hit the restroom when the ball was being kicked off.  After 2011, this part of the game became a mandatory pee break.  Nothing to see here. 

In 2024, the NFL hopes to change that.  A little too late for Devin Hester.

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