Wednesday, November 14, 2007

All-Time Great Kick Returners

Joshua Cribbs electrified Browns fans again last weekend with kick returns of 90 and 100 yards against Pittsburgh. As Jeff Walcott's recent article on the Browns' web site points out, Cribbs is having a simply spectacular season. Not only has he surpassed Dino Hall to become the Browns' all-time leader in kick return yardage, but his 1,230 yards on kick returns is tops in the NFL, and his 32.4 yards per return average ranks him among the league's top five.

This is a golden age for NFL kick returners. For example, while Cribbs has given Browns fans plenty to cheer about, the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester may just be the best kick returner of all time, and he's only been in the league for two seasons. These guys accomplishments have allowed them to eclipse Dante Hall, aka the "X Factor," in the imagination of fans, but they can't rest on their laurels, because just last weekend, the Chargers' Darren Sproles became the first player since 2002 to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same game.

The accomplishments of the current crop of return men may make some fans think that these guys invented the art of the kick return. That's certainly not the case, and as a Browns fan, names like Eric Metcalf and Greg Pruitt immediately come to mind as players who could turn a game around with a kick return. Eric Metcalf, in particular, is the Brown whose returns I remember as being the most spectacular.

Metcalf's greatest day was against the Steelers in 1993, when he became the first player in NFL history to score two touchdowns in a single game on punt returns longer than 75 yards. If I did this right, and you have RealPlayer, you should be able to listen to Nev Chandler's call of one of those touchdown returns by clicking right here. (It's also available on this page at the Browns' website.)

No discussion of kick returners would be complete without acknowledging Brian Mitchell, who ranks second all-time in total yardage (23,330), primarily as a result of the 14,014 yards he gained on kickoff returns and the 4,999 yards he gained running back punts, or the late Travis Williams, who averaged an incredible 41 yards per return for the Green Bay Packers in 1967. There were plenty of other great return men as well, including guys like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who was selected as the punt returner on the NFL's 75th anniversary team, and St. Joe's own Desmond Howard, who was named MVP of Super Bowl XXI on the strength of his 244 yards in total returns, and remains the only special teams player to earn that honor.

When it comes to all-time greats, however, I think you've got to give the nod to a Chicago Bear, but not Devin Hester, or at least not yet Devin Hester. For now, the guy who remains #1 in my book is the immortal Gale Sayers, who is still the only man to average over 30 yards per return for his entire career. Jim Brown was the greatest football player who ever lived, but I don't think there was ever a better open-field runner than Sayers. When he was healthy, he did things that I've never seen anybody else do with a football. If you check out this video, you'll get a sense for what I'm talking about:

gale sayers asks, Reggie Bush who?

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Sometimes I think people get too caught up about the wonders of today's NFL players, and how they're such great athletes and training techniques are so advanced that there's just no comparison between them and players of earlier eras. That's probably true for most players, but even in today's golden age of kick returners, I'd wager that the Kansas Comet could still run with the big dogs. Oh yeah, he could probably play a little tailback too.


Joey Peeps said...

He also did a nice job opposite James Caan in Brian's Song.

chocolate starfish said...

Yeah, I do admit I cried when James Caan died in this movie when he got gunned down at the toll booth when he was rushing to the aid of Gayle Sayers, who was the longsuffering victim of an abusive spouse. It made me sad.

Hornless Rhino said...


That sounds familiar. Are you sure it was in Brian's Song? I thought that scene was in that Star Wars movie where Darth Vader made Gale Sayers turn Han Solo over to Boba Fett.

Chitown Sid said...

Sayers was the best runner of all time.

Joey Peeps said...

He was awesome in those Schlitz Malt Liquor commercials, too.

SJE said...

Interesting how so many great returners have the initials D.H.

Desmond Howard
Dante Hall
Devin Hester