There was much speculation regarding Devin Hester’s future in Chicago as Phil Emery and company added both Eric Weems and Devin Thomas – both viable return men – to strengthen Dave Toub’s already-strong special teams. Fans across the oft-tedious Twitterverse wondered whether the Bears might actually trade the greatest kick returner in the history of the sport before the first round of the draft. This notion was met with a series of question marks and not-so-subtle are you seriouses from the likes of Sean Jensen and a popular Bears blogger I sleep with every night.
Today PFT, operating from an article in the Trib, speculates more succinctly on the Bears intention for Hester: less kick returns, more wide receiver. And I think it is the right move in 2012 for every reason it was the wrong move in 2009.
In 2008 Hester was a nightmare on both kick and punt returns (regardless of his statistics). He was altering special teams game plans in ways the league had never seen before as opponents seemed more willing to let the Bears start drives at their own 40 as opposed to letting Hester beating them for six. On offense he was a gimmick because his route running was almost as shaky as his comprehension of the offense. And when he stepped on the field defenses focused their attention on stopping him because they knew he was the most explosive player on the field. No matter how many times the Bears threw a bubble screen to Ridiculous, it just wasn’t going to catch defenses off guard. Why would it? Safeties weren’t exactly shaking at the thought of Rashied Davis exploding out of the slot. (Which, it turns out, sounds gross.)
By relieving Hester of his kick return duties and committing him to the offensive side of the ball, the Bears effectively weakened themselves in two primary areas. For my money it was the most infuriating decision of the Jerry/Lovie era.
Now times have changed. The Brandon Marshall acquisition means Devin Hester can finally slide into a natural, complimentary, speed threat role. And he’ll do so with none of the attention or pressure that accompanied his first venture. If Hester can not succeed now at receiver for the Bears he will never succeed at the position for any team in the league.
With changes to the kickoff rules we are seeing the KR position significantly devalued. And with a 45% reduction in concussion-related injuries on returns this past season we may moving toward complete elimination of the play. Will Weems and Thomas fill the Danieal Manning/Johnny Knox kick return role admirably? Of course they will. But if Lovie believes he needs a kick return to alter the course or perhaps win a game he will not hesitate to stick the Skunk back there.
Hester is a Hall of Fame kick returner but I will save that fight for the end of his career. If he’s going to be remembered for contributions outside the special teams arena it will be determined by his performance at the receiver slot in 2012. And I think Phil Emery has given him his best opportunity for success thus far in his career.