Devin Hester Needs to Return as Special Teams Ace for Chicago Bears
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When Lovie Smith's Bears needed a big play after only putting up seven points in three quarters, Hester responded with a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, his first since December of 2007, that gave Chicago a lead it would not relinquish.
"If you talk to most of our opponents, they'll still tell you they are scared when Devin goes back there," Smith said of Hester's punt return.
By dedicating himself to the receiver position over the last two years, Hester soon found himself phased out of the kick return game. While he has enjoyed marginal success at the receiver position, especially in the deep passing game, Hester has slowly declined as an X-factor on the Chicago Bears.
During his first two seasons at wide receiver, Hester was an enigmatic presence on the field, contributing rarely, and only in the vertical attack of the offense. While his explosiveness did lead to a few (six) touchdowns, including a 65-yarder in '08, he mostly looked lost on the field, having topping out at 757 receiving yards in 2009.
Still, on punt returns, the flare and swagger that we had become accustomed to seeing from the Miami product seemed all but a distant memory. During his first two years in the league, Hester accounted for more than 1,200 punt return yards and brought seven punts back for scores; yet over the next two seasons he wouldn't score again nor break 200 punt yards in either season.
It's not as if the Bears' special teams suddenly got worse either. In fact, they may have actually gotten better. Last season, they sent Johnny Knox to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, and during Hester's three-game absence last year, Earl Bennett returned a punt for a touchdown.
Even in 2008, when Hester began splitting kick return duties with Danieal Manning, the safety from Abilene Christian University had over 1,000 return yards and brought a kick back 83 yards for a score.
This season, though, we have seen a hybrid Devin Hester take the field for the Chicago Bears. After a quiet performance in the Bears' opening day win against the Lions, Hester has scored touchdowns in back-to-back games, one through the air and the other on his punt return Monday night.
The sight of Hester finding the open lane and blazing through it brings Bears fans back to their Super Bowl run in '06. For Chicago to continue its success and not have this season become a pipe dream, Hester will need to play like his old self in the return game and continue to mature as a wide receiver.
While we may never see Hester dominate the passing game like he did the return game, his speed and quickness always make him a threat when he lines up out wide.
Having witnessed Hester return the opening kickoff to Super Bowl XLI in person, his appearance on the field creates a buzz among the crowd. The true beauty, though, happens once the ball rests securely in his hands.
Almost too quick for his own feet, Hester stumbles through holes and hits open space with the knowledge that the touchdown occurred two seconds prior when he left six defenders grasping for air. Once he hits the end zone, there are no flashy rituals or inane dance moves—only the roar of the crowd feeding off the electricity that he just produced.
When Hester can play like that, the momentum he brings to his team—and the fear he instills in his opponents—is unrivaled throughout the NFL. With Dexter McCluster making a strong push for this prestigious category, Hester needs to bring back the flashes of brilliance we were so accustomed to seeing in order to secure his spot.
As the Bears continue to win games and gain more exposure, Hester will no doubt return to the public eye. The question is, will he be able to deliver when the Bears need him most?
Jesse Paguaga is an intern at Bleacher Report and a regular contributor to Baseball Digest. Jesse writes for Gotham Baseball, along with Gotham Hoops and Gotham Gridiron. He is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. He can be reached at Paguaga@usc.edu and be found on Facebook and Twitter (@JPags77).
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