The longest punt returns in NFL history and why the greatest one will never be topped


– Okay, I’m gonna be honest with you. The guy who holds the High Score here, he’s likely never giving it up. And regardless, it’s a pretty
hard game just to complete. Your goal is to collect a punt, then use your speed and elusiveness to dodge defenders and make
it across the goal line. Do that, and your score counts. With your points determined by how many yards you
cover in your return. But while you can control things like how fast and how agile you are, a big part of this game
comes down to luck. You don’t really get to decide where you’re going to start from and therefore if you even
have a shot at the High Score. And usually if you have
a lot of ground to cover, your opponent just has more
room to stop you short. So like I said, it’s a pretty tough game. But, that just mean those
who have set the high scores, have done something special. To give an example of how hard it is to return punts a record setting distance, look at Devin Hester. He’s arguably the best
to ever play this game, with more career
touchdowns than anyone else in NFL history. But when looking at the high scores, Hester doesn’t even crack the top 50. Twice he finished with 89 yard returns, but when the difficulty
setting’s been raised, Hester hasn’t been able
to sniff the top 10. Partially because it’s
littered with absurdity. Take Tavon Austin, for instance. He’s a perfect case for what is needed to set a High Score worthy punt return. The Rams took him in the first round of the 2013 draft out of West Virginia where he had spent four
years making huge plays. Mainly thanks to the fact
that the kid could fly. But an underrated part of
his game, dude’s sneaky. He put it altogether his
rookie year against the Colts. When Pat McAfee hit what looked like a perfect coffin corner kick, Austin immediately began
waving teammates away. By the time the ball landed,
only one Colt was nearby and he happened to be
face down in the end zone. Austin snagged the ball off the bounce when it was at the two, slid
past some would-be tacklers, and hugged the sideline
the rest of the way for a 98 yard return. So, how did he get so free to
have a shot at a High Score? Well, the announcers’ best guess was that by waving off his teammates, Austin had fooled the Colts into thinking he was calling for a fair catch. – [Announcer] Tim, I think
a lotta the Colt players, they saw him waving to
get away from the ball, as if not to touch it but
I never saw his arm go up for the fair catch.
– And neither did I. – NFL scouts, I’ll say it again. Forget about those
metrics that don’t matter, like strength, find dudes that are sneaky. It can go a long way. And for Austin it vaulted
him straight into the top 10. But 98 yards, that’s only
good enough to tie for 3rd. And even that is a crowded spot. He joined guys like Dennis Morgan, who touched the ball
just 69 times as a pro but made one of them count. Or Charlie West who in a 12 year career scored exactly one touchdown, doing so in spectacular fashion. Then there’s Gil Lefebvre, the founding father of punt return. The game has seen just a few
patches since he played it but that shouldn’t take away
from the fact his 98 yarder stood as the High Score for six decades. We don’t have video but we do have something just
as good: newspaper reports! Gil dodged two bruising would-be tacklers, reversed his field,
eluded a half-dozen more of the enemy and twisted, turned, and sprinted sensationally
for 98 yards and a touchdown. The only problem with
old Gil was he left room for someone to beat him. And one of those who did
was Patrick Peterson. The former LSU Tiger did so
with a bit of flair, too. His first year in Arizona, Peterson’s pretty terrible Cardinals team played an even more terrible Rams team. Naturally, these one win
teams needed overtime to determine bragging rights. That’s where Peterson entered. He had already shown that he
had a knack for this game. As a senior in college, he returned a pair of punts for scores. One of which coming against
a West Virginia squad with a sophomore Tayvon Austin. And in his very first game as a pro he matched Hester’s career long with an 89 yarder of his own which served as the winning score. He notched another 80 plus yard return the week before the Rams came to town and now in overtime,
showed his legs were fresh. He back pedaled to the
one, brought the ball in, cut across the field then
began the long sprint ahead, breaking one tackle
then dodging a few more plus a very deliberate spin. From there, the last 60 yards were easy. And as he reached the end zone, he had done something no
one else had in NFL history. An exactly 99 yard punt return. Of his achievement, Peterson
said I knew that was gutsy. I decided to catch the
ball and run for my life. It was spectacular. It was a walk-off score. And it was only good enough for 2nd place. But Patrick, may I remind
you that 1st is the worst, 2nd’s the best and 3rd, the one with the hairy chest. (he laughs) So lame, I’m sorry. Everyone up to this point
has many things in common. They’re fast, they can make tacklers miss, but there’s one other key characteristic, every one of them accomplished
their record return during their rookie year. And it makes a ton of sense. You’ll likely never be faster than you first season in the league, you probably haven’t suffered an injury that would kill some of your elusiveness. But the biggest factor, when you’re young, you just don’t know any better. To notch a High Score, you
have to take some risks and inexperience can help you
throw caution to the wind. Just to re-examine what Tayvon did, I’m not saying it was dumb of him to catch this with his back to the 10 dudes swarming his way, I’m just saying that had he touched it and not caught it, it
likely would’ve landed right into the lap of the
Colt already hanging out in the end zone. Even his head coach
admitted to wanting Austin to get away from the ball,
a move that might make sense in the game of football, but
not in Return of the Punt. To be great, sometimes
you’ve gotta be reckless. Or, you can be Dwayne Harris. Like everyone else, he’s a burner. But he’s also been around
the league long enough that he’s had to find
other ways to gain an edge. The experience points he’s earned have been spent on intelligence. Which he put to good
use in the 2018 season. As the Raiders faced the Broncos on Monday Night Football, Denver
looked to pin Oakland deep. After letting the ball go over his head, Harris kept tracking the play
as the Broncos’ coverage team did their best to prevent a touchback. But the moment Denver touched
it without downing it, Harris knew he was set. He scooped the ball up, sprinted
towards the other sideline and got the corner. From there speed did the rest and he tied Peterson’s 99 yard return. Compared to Austin’s dangerous run back, Harris had the benefit of
knowing the NFL rulebook. Since Denver had touched
it, the worst thing that could happen would be Raiders’ ball from the point of first touch. But with the coverage unit getting ready to celebrate their own efforts, Harris stole the show. And afterward, he reminded
everyone that sometimes, it can be pretty cool to be smart. But again, being smart
can only get you so far. And if there’s any kids watching, that’s the main takeaway of this video. Sometimes the way to the top isn’t by taking advantage
of your knowledge, it’s by taking advantage
of others’ stupidity. That’s how I got here. With that in mind, we head to New Orleans. During the 1994 season, the
LA Rams visited the Saints and a backup corner stole the show. Robert Bailey had never
returned a punt in the NFL. Which normally would make
it tough to set the record for longest punt return. But since he wasn’t a starter, he saw action on special teams. And simply being on the
field was all it took against the Jim Mora led Saints. While this Rams team wasn’t great, the Saints were at the start
of a dysfunctional free-fall. Which helps make sense of
what happened on October 23rd. With 4:16 to play and the
Saints up 10, they punted away. Bailey was set up to
help block on a return. But as the ball came down in the end zone, both teams figured the play
was dead, except for Bailey. He watched as the ball bounced at the back of the end zone, but
didn’t go out of bounds. And then he pounced. He scooped up the ball as both teams headed to their sidelines and the announcers tried
to piece things together. – [Announcer] Wait a minute,
what’s going on out here? (crowd cheering) That is one of the most unbelievable plays I’ve ever seen, they
never downed the ball, it was sitting in the end zone. And the Rams picked it up and scored! – 103 yards. His first ever punt return on a play where he wasn’t even
supposed to return it. And he cemented a High Score
that likely will never fall. Technically, it could, just in a way that probably wouldn’t
fly in the modern NFL. See, while inexperience can
lead to some wild plays, it’s hard to imagine even a
rookie doing what is needed to break Bailey’s record. The NFL has updated its rules
to make it so the ball is dead as soon as it hits the end zone as long as the receiving
team hasn’t touched it. Which does make it technically possible for a return man to go rogue, see the ball sailing into the end zone, catch the ball from at
least four yards deep, not care about how pissed
off his coach will be and hope that his actions
were so unexpected that the coverage unit has given up to allow the run back to
go off without a hitch. Then, and only then, would
we get a new High Score. That would then definitely
get called back for holding. But even if that absurd
situation never happens, there’s already been enough
awesome jaw dropping spectacles that make punt returns pretty amazing. There’s so much potential every time and while it is kind of rare for someone to actually get their score to
count in return of the punt, these guys have shown that all it takes is the slightest of chances for the most unbelievable
plays to become history. Fun fact, my dad could
return a punt 200 yards if he wanted to. Thanks for watching, check out more episodes
of High Score here, including my personal favorite, what players have jacked up
the most threes in an NBA game? It gets pretty absurd. Subscribe to SB Nation and do me a favor, hit the bell for notifications.

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