It was supposed to be the final validation of greatness. Instead, Super Bowl week of 2022 became frustrating for Chicago Bears fans. A week where they had to watch Devin Hester, the greatest return man in NFL history by a wide margin, fail to reach Canton. It would’ve been one thing if he’d face a stacked field of candidates. Yet none of the five modern-era inductees were first-ballot additions. Two of them, Bryant Young and Sam Mills, were All-Pros only one time each. Hester was three times.
There was plenty of outrage over the decision. Not just from Bears fans too. Many national beat writers and reporters were shocked Hester didn’t get in. A reminder of how dominant and memorable he was. So what happened? Peter King of NBC Sports offered interesting details on the process that led to the final voting decisions. He’s been a Hall of Fame voter for years. His first revelation is that Hester was one of the longer discussions among the panel.
“The 7-hour, 26-minute meeting (shorter than most, for no reason I can guess) didn’t have any marathon discussions. The length for each modern-era candidate, from longest to shortest:
Boselli 25:29, Young 23:54, Reggie Wayne 22:18, Jared Allen 20:44,
Devin Hester 18:12, Torry Holt 17:47, Butler 17:07, Zach Thomas 15:20,
Mills 15:02, Demarcus Ware 12:29, Andre Johnson 11:34,
Ronde Barber 10:31, Willie Anderson 10:11, Seymour 7:09, Patrick Willis 6:01.”
This suggests the room was somewhat split on Hester’s candidacy.
Some likely felt he was an easy decision given his incredible impact as a returner. Others may believe that alone, great as it was, couldn’t outshine other players that were on the field making plays for more extended periods. King made it clear that he believes Hester is a no-doubt Hall of Fame player and should’ve gone in. That said, he has a theory as to why the Bears legend couldn’t get in this year.
“Regarding Devin Hester: He’s the best return man of my 38 years covering the game. I was bullish on him. Before the voting, I had him my second-strongest candidate in the field. (Top eight: Butler, Hester, Young, Boselli, Johnson, Mills, Ware, Thomas.) I do think the fact that he was not an impact wide receiver probably hurt his case, but my feeling is he should make it on return presence alone.”
This comes back to the crux of the issue. For as brilliant as Hester was in the return game, many feel he should’ve had a greater impact on offense. Yet across 12 seasons in the league, he managed just 3,311 yards and 16 touchdowns. Part of the problem is that he never really ended up under a coach who understood how to take advantage of his unique gifts. Ron Turner, Mike Martz, and Mike Tice were his offensive coordinators in Chicago. All three either lacked imagination or were too far behind the times. They had no idea what they had. Think what San Francisco has done with Deebo Samuel, and that should illustrate what the Bears could’ve done with Hester.
Devin Hester should get in. He may have to wait though
The fact he didn’t crack the final five despite this being a somewhat weak class overall should be concerning. Notable names that will join the ballot in 2023 include Joe Thomas, Darrelle Revis, Dwight Freeney, and James Harrison. One can make a safe argument that Thomas and Revis should end up as first-ballot entrants. That would leave only three spots left for modern candidates. Not a great margin of error.
Then again, this wouldn’t be the first time an all-time great has had to wait. Dan Hampton retired in 1990 but didn’t reach the Hall of Fame until 2002. Richard Dent retired in 1994 but didn’t make it until 2011. They were part of arguably the greatest defense in history and won a Super Bowl. If those guys had to wait, then Devin Hester may have to as well. This doesn’t mean he should.
Nobody changed the game like he did.
Not only that but there will likely never be anybody like him again, especially as the NFL continues to limit the return game more and more these days. Hester was not only the best the NFL has ever seen but probably will remain the best it will ever see. That is what a Hall of Famer is all about.
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