Returner (kickoffs and punts) is another position for which the Bears seem to have a colorful history since 1977. Hard to believe, but the years during which the Bears didn’t have a solid returner are fewer than the years for which they have. Compare this with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who as a team played 31 seasons before finally returning a kickoff for a touchdown for the first time in 2007.
(Please note in these articles, the “interesting mention” players are not considered top at the position, just an interesting side note to the discussion).
Interesting Mention: Many interesting mentions here. Jeff Fisher (most recently the most tenured head coach in the NFL before his 2011 firing by Tennessee) served as Chicago’s primary punt returner from 1981-1984. Despite, frankly, being pretty slow as returners go. He averaged 9.2 yards per return including an 88-yard touchdown in 1981. The equally less-than-fleet-of-foot Tom Waddle returned some punts, including a long one for a touchdown during the 1992 preseason. In 2001 and 2002, head coach Dick Jauron stuck with cement-footed running back Leon Johnson as his primary kick and punt returner, feeling Johnson’s “sure hands” were a benefit. That was until Johnson let a kickoff bounce off his facemask in 2002, helping turn the 2-0 Bears’ 20-0 lead over the Saints into a 29-23 loss and an eventual 4-12 season record. In 1997 Dave Wannstedt gave Saints return man Tyrone Hughes a large contract to play offense, defense and special teams, and Hughes was an absolute bust. Finally, a flash in the pan was running back Johnny Bailey, who in 1990 scored on a 95-yard punt return. But after proving he had a hard time actually catching the ball on returns, he was released after just one full season.
Candidates: Jerry Azumah (1999-2005); Dennis Gentry (1982-1992); Devin Hester (2006-present); Danieal Manning (2006-present); Dennis McKinnon (1983-1989); Glyn Milburn (1998-2001)
When the Bears selected safety Danieal Manning with their first pick in the 2006 draft, one of the reasons given was his blinding speed and return abilities. Little did we know these abilities would be blown away by the team’s second pick in that draft. More on Devin Hester later, but following the phenom’s injury and (temporary) dropoff in production in 2008-2009, the Bears began using Manning on kickoff returns. He responded by becoming one of the league’s most feared kickoff returners. Manning’s game is far different than Hester’s, relying on blinding speed to hit holes before the defenders can prepare. In 2008, he led the league with a 29.7 average per return and one touchdown. Manning is our sixth-best Bears returner since 1977.
Dennis McKinnon isn’t remembered much as a punt returner, but he did make the second-most punt returns in team history after Hester during his seven seasons in Chicago. He averaged 9.2 yards per return with three touchdowns. McKinnon is our fifth-best returner.
It’s hard to list Jerry Azumah all the way down as the fourth-best returner since 1977, given that up to the 2009 season he is ranked as the third most productive kick returner in team history. Azumah didn’t start returning kicks regularly until the 2003 season, and much like Manning, his game was blinding speed rather than shifty moves. He was selected to his lone Pro Bowl appearance following 2003 (even though the Bears don’t list this), and scored two touchdowns on kickoffs.
Dennis “Pinky” Gentry comes in at third. Gentry served as primary kickoff returner for most of his 11 seasons in Chicago, and is still tied atop the list for number of kickoff returns at 192. He scored three touchdowns.
Second on the list is versatile running back Glyn Milburn. Milburn had been a dangerous return man with Denver and Detroit, and somehow wound up with the Green Bay Packers prior to the 1998 season. For whatever reason, the Bears and Packers pulled off a rare trade that summer, sending Milburn to the Bears in exchange for a late-round draft pick. In four seasons, Milburn returned the most kickoffs in Chicago Bears history (tied with Gentry at 192) and also took back 94 punts. He scored once on a punt return and twice with kickoffs. Jauron cut Milburn 10 games into the 2001 season after he had a hard time hanging onto some balls, and he never returned to the NFL after an eight-year career.
Naming Devin Hester as the best return man since 1977 with the Chicago Bears is as no-brainer as it will get. If there were a special teams rookie of the year award in the NFL, Hester would have run away with it in 2006. In fact, serious debate emerged over this as well as naming a kick returner Offensive Rookie of the Year after his first season. That year Hester took back 3 punts and 2 kickoffs (the kickoffs both in one game vs. St. Louis) for touchdowns. He followed this up with a strong 2007, then missed time early in the 2008 season after a contract dispute. Talk ensued that Hester had lost his magic when in 2008-2009 he didn’t score on a single return. But the phenom roared back in 2010, when he returned three punts for touchdowns, making him the leader in return touchdowns in NFL history in just five seasons.