State Your Case: Mel Gray most consistently dangerous returner in NFL history

Mel Gray photo courtesy of Detroit Lions
Ron Borges

Special teams have long been ignored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Although strong coverage teams and explosive return men can heavily impact a game, only two pure kickers – Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen – and one pure punter – Ray Guy – have ever been enshrined. Bad as that is, the greatest indignity is that no return specialist or gunner has ever been awarded a bust in Canton. If they had, Mel Gray would have been wearing a gold jacket long ago.

Gray may not be the first return man who comes to mind because of the 20 career return touchdowns scored by Devin Hester or the selection of Billy “White Shoes’’ Johnson as the return man on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. He may not have complied the overall numbers of Brian Mitchell either but if consistent explosiveness for a full decade is the criteria it is fair to say no kick and punt returner can match his record.

By the time Gray’s 14-year professional career was over he’d been named to four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and seven total All-Pro teams, the 1990s All-Decade team as both a kick returner and a punt returner and to the USFL’s All-Time team for his two seasons of work with the L.A. Express before coming to the NFL in 1986.

For the purposes of comparison Hester, who many would argue is the greatest return man of all-time because of those touchdowns, also went to four Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro three times. Same as Gray. But Hester made only four All-Pro teams total when first and second teams are included, four fewer than Gray, who never had a down season as a return man until the final year of his career.

Gray made an instant impact his first season in New Orleans, taking a kickoff back 101 yards for a touchdown in 1986 despite working only part-time. That soon changed to full-time status and his impact was like a cannon shot into the side of a fortress. Booming.

His greatest seasons came during his six years with the Detroit Lions, where he twice led the NFL in kick return average and twice led in punt return average. In 1994 Gray had a year like few others, averaging an astounding 28.4 yards per kick return and bringing three kickoffs back for touchdowns including a 102-yard return at age 33. That not only made him the oldest returner in NFL history to score a touchdown but his three touchdowns that season made him the oldest, second oldest and third oldest return man to score with a kickoff return. The other two covered 98 and 91 yards. Now that’s the definition of impact player.

His NFL success didn’t come without warning. He was a USFL star both as a return man and runner, in 1984 scoring the winning touchdown on a 24-yard run from scrimmage in a USFL divisional playoff victory over the Michigan Panthers that ended the longest game in pro football history. It went to three overtimes, totaling 93 minutes and 33 seconds of game time and four hours and three minutes of real time before Gray eluded four tacklers and one referee and sprinted to the end zone, landing with a resounding thud that broke his left arm.

By the end of his career, Gray had piled up 10,250 kick return yards and 2,753 punt return yards, averaging 24.35 yards per kick return and 10.92 per punt. Gray’s six career kickoff returns for scores leaves him second in NFL history, trailing only Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington (8).

During his peak years with the Lions, Gray did even better than his remarkable career norms, averaging 25.4 yards per kick return with five touchdowns and 10.8 per punt with two more. To put the result of such numbers into better perspective consider this: in 1991 the average NFL kickoff return was 18.9 yards. Gray led the NFL by averaging 24.35 yards per kick return. That’s an advantage in field position of more than five yards over the average returner that season. Few players at any position provided his team a bigger field position edge than Mel Gray.

Yet Gray has never come close to being discussed by the Hall’s voters and if something doesn’t change it’s unlikely he ever will. As the most consistent return man in history over a 10-year period it’s time it did.

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