<
>

Leon Washington, Devin Hester in spotlight

Devin Hester, left, and Leon Washington have made a huge impact on special teams this season. Getty Images

RENTON, Wash. -- Leon Washington says there's much more to the impending Seattle-Chicago divisional playoff game than a battle for "SportsCenter" air time between two of the NFL's elite return men.

He's right, too.

This game Sunday in Chicago goes deeper than Washington and the Bears' Devin Hester. It's also about the men blocking for them and, in a surprise, even the women who have their backs.

Washington's wife and Hester's girlfriend have been known to rack up yards after the text while sending messages back and forth over their phones.

This could get interesting, no?

Hester's girlfriend, Tamara James, might know something about competitive bravado after playing for the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. Washington's wife, Charity, has been known to speak her mind.

"It's been friendly," Washington said. "I made sure my wife made sure it was friendly. I told her, 'Talk back in a friendly way.'"

They have had much to text about this season.

Hester has three punt returns for touchdowns, including one against Seattle in Week 6, while Washington's successful return from a career-threatening leg injury has made him a candidate for comeback player of the year in the NFL.

Both major bones in Washington's lower right leg snapped while Washington was playing for the New York Jets at Oakland in Week 7 last season. Seattle acquired an on-the-mend Washington from the Jets during a draft-day trade amid questions about whether Washington would get back onto the field at all.

Two return touchdowns against San Diego in Week 3 removed any doubt. Overall, Washington has three kickoff returns for touchdowns and a near score on a punt return.

Washington's rivalry with Hester goes back to their high school days. Both were top cornerbacks coming out of Florida at the same time.

Hester, 28, has become a starting receiver for the Bears, catching 97 passes over the past two seasons. Washington, also 28, gets spot duty as a running back for Seattle, although returns are where he makes the greatest impact -- either with the ball in his hands or when opponents kick away from him, as the case was during a 41-36 victory over New Orleans in the wild-card round Saturday.

"I always look forward to being the first person to touch the ball at the beginning of the game or after halftime or trying to grasp that momentum right after the opposing team scores," Washington said. "It's a great way to instantly grab that momentum back."

Special-teams coaches tend to get credit or blame based upon how their returners fare. While Washington was quick to credit coaching and the men blocking for him, no amount of blocking or scheming can turn a mediocre returner into a dynamic one.

Hester is the standard by which all such dynamism should be measured. He leads the NFL this season with a 35.6-yard average on kickoff returns (minimum 12 returns) and an NFL-record 17.1-yard average on punt returns (minimum 30 returns). Hester has a league-record 14 return touchdowns in five NFL seasons.

"Every time you turn on the TV, you see that guy flying and high-stepping to the end zone," Washington said.

Washington averaged 25.6 yards per kickoff return this season, right at his career average. He averaged a career-best 11.1 yards per punt return, with an 84-yarder against Carolina.

Seattle's return game has lost some of its momentum in the second half of the season, however.

Washington averaged at least 25.7 yards per kickoff return in four of the Seahawks' first five games. He averaged between 22.0 and 24.7 yards per return in four of the next five games. The average has fallen between 15.4 and 20.6 yards in six of the Seahawks' seven most recent games, counting playoffs.

Two theories: Colder weather late in the season can lead to shorter kickoffs, giving returners less room to set up their blocks and break long returns. Also, teams make a more concerted effort to limit long returns if a team breaks a few early in the season.

Seattle still finished the season ranked third among NFL teams in starting field position following kickoffs. The Jets were first and the Bears were second.

Washington and Hester factored significantly into the equation.

Which one fares better Sunday could determine whether Tamara or Charity has the most to text about.