In the span of less than a calendar year, the Chicago Bears have managed to turn Devin Hester from potentially the greatest return man in the history of the NFL to a below-average wide receiver that occasionally returns kicks.
My question is why?
Why fix something that isn't broken? Why take someone out of his element who is doing his job beyond anyone's wildest expectations? Why give up starting field position at your own 40-yard line?
The answer from the Bears' front office was (and I paraphrase): "To get Devin more involved with the offense."
Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Hester as a decoy on a reverse, or even lined up in the Wildcat formation behind center. But trying to turn him into a No. 1 WR is just plain dumb.
Hester is a great athlete, but he is not a great receiver. He just hasn't had enough practice to be polished in running routes and reading coverage. By having him in on offense for the majority of the snaps, he gets too tired to make the cuts that made him untouchable in the return game.
Let's run through some numbers:
In 2006, Hester made no catches on offense and played sparingly on defense. He totaled 67 combined returns for five combined TDs (not including the missed 108-yard FG return or kickoff return TD in the Super Bowl).
In 2007, Hester had 20 catches over 10 games (only four games with more than one catch). He had 85 combined returns for six combined TDs. This was especially impressive considering how often teams kicked away from him.
This year, through only 10 games (of which Hester has played nine), he already has more catches and yards than last year (26 for 318). Meanwhile, he has only 45 combined returns for no touchdowns. In addition, he has already lost more fumbles (two) than he did all of last season.
Obviously, Hester's lack of production isn't just a function of his being more involved in the offense.
Two things stick out.
First, Devin is trying too hard to make the big play. It is clear that the fans expect him to take the ball to the house every time he touches it, which is unrealistic. But if you look at the numbers above, in 2006 and 2007, he did it once every 14 times he touched the ball in the return game during the regular season.
Second, his ego has taken a hit now that teams kick to him without fear. Hester used to be the man in Chicago and could electrify the crowd just by walking onto the field to return a punt. Out of respect, teams would squib kick or punt out of bounds to avoid a return. Now they kick it deep every time and Devin struggles to get it to the 20.
These factors, combined with his increased workload on offense, have effectively neutralized him in the return game. This, in turn, has eliminated the field-position advantage for the Bears, causing the defense to be on the field more, and well, you get the idea.
So here is my message to Lovie Smith, Jerry Angelo, and whoever else is listening: DEVIN HESTER IS NOT A STARTING WIDE RECEIVER IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.
Let him return kicks, and every once in a while put him on the field on offense as a distraction. Let him do what he does best; don't try to force him into something he isn't.