ORLANDO, Fla. – Some of the greatest running backs and middle linebackers in NFL history played for the Bears. But the franchise also boasts an equally impressive lineage at another position.
From Hall of Famer George McAfee in the 1940s to present-day star Cordarrelle Patterson—who's making his third career Pro Bowl appearance this week—no team has had more star kick returners than the Bears.
It all starts, of course, with Devin Hester, who is widely considered the greatest return specialist in NFL history. Hester played eight of his 11 NFL seasons with the Bears and holds league records with 19 kick-return touchdowns, 14 punt-return TDs and 20 total return touchdowns, which includes punts, kickoffs, missed field goals, fumbles and interceptions.
But Hester is just one of several great Bears return specialists. McAfee, who played for the Monsters of the Midway from 1940-50, is the NFL's all-time leader with a 12.8-yard punt return average, while Hall of Famer Gale Sayers tops the league with a 30.6-yard kickoff return average.
Patterson ranks second all-time with a 29.9-yard kickoff return average and his seven touchdowns are the third most in NFL history, one behind co-leaders Leon Washington and Josh Cribbs. In his first season with the Bears in 2019, Patterson finished second in the league with a 29.5-yard average on 28 kickoff returns, including a 102-yard touchdown against the Saints, and led the league with 825 kick-return yards.
The 6-2, 238-pounder helped the Bears top the NFL in kickoff return average (26.6 yards) in 2019 after ranking last in the league (19.1) in 2018. Patterson was named first-team All-Pro by Associated Press, Sporting News and the Pro Football Writers of America.
Despite his success, Patterson downplayed any comparisons with Hester and Sayers.
"It's a blessing, but I'm just trying to do my job," Patterson said after practicing with the NFC Pro Bowl squad Wednesday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. "I would never be as great as Devin Hester or Gale Sayers. I just try to do my job each and every day, and it's just an honor to play on the same field those guys played on."
Other Bears have excelled as return specialists throughout the years. Hall of Famer Walter Payton led the NFL with a 31.7-yard average on 14 kickoff returns as a rookie in 1975. Jerry Azumah and Danieal Manning both were voted to the Pro Bowl after topping the league in kickoff-return average in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
Patterson, meanwhile, possesses a rare combination of size, speed and strength. It's something that Patriots eight-time Pro Bowl special-teams standout Matthew Slater has appreciated both as a teammate in 2018 with New England and as an opponent.
"There aren't many guys who are 6-2, 6-3, 220 [pounds], run 4.3 and can cut on a dime," Slater said Wednesday after practicing with the AFC Pro Bowl team. "God didn't make too many of those guys.
"I think you couple that with the fact that he's so aggressive when he gets out of there with the ball in his hands. He wants to make plays. He loves the game. He's there for his teammates. I can't say enough good things about him. His skillset and who he is as a person I think has led him to being arguably one of the best returners in the 100-year history of the game. I sure wish he was still with us and not with [the Bears]."
Slater recalled an occasion when he had a chance to tackle Patterson on a kickoff in the open field when the Bears star played for the Vikings.
"In Minnesota, I had a one-on-one with him," Slater said. "We'll say, 'CP 1, Slater 0.'"