Sometimes I spring from my sweat-soaked pillow in the middle of the night, awoken by the howls of neighborhood wolves and the soul-disturbing memories of Devin Hester playing wide receiver. I wipe my brow with a towel, blow my nose in the nearby Kleenex and lay my head back down as my girlfriend calms me with a gently-whispered “It’s okay, Jeff. Lovie is gone.”
Devin Hester is the greatest kick returner in the history of the sport. And whilst some had forgotten that fact, calling for the Skunk to be discarded this summer, Sunday, at Soldier Field, against the Minnesota Vikings, he proved it once again. No, he didn’t score. Minnesota essentially ran a “safety” on kick returns, holding a player back with the kicker to prevent the touchdown. But Hester was a one-man momentum-shifting machine. 249 return yards. The way he used to be.
Hester’s homecoming to the top of the return ladder could not have happened without a confluence of circumstances.
[In 2010 I did a podcast with Devin Hester. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. To hear it, CLICK HERE.]
CIRCUMSTANCE #1: EMERY IS HIRED TO REPLACE ANGELO
Angelo’s inability to draft offensive talent led to the misguided belief within the organization that moving Hester to offense was not a luxury but a necessity. Hester had more speed than the motley crew of receivers assembled and was clearly the team’s most dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands so how could they NOT attempt to use him outside the half dozen return opportunities he would see weekly?
But Hester couldn’t catch. He had trouble lining up. He ran the wrong routes. And it didn’t take long for his confusion at the line of scrimmage to trickle into his return game. Suddenly the electric air surrounding a coming Hester return was replaced by puzzled faces and sixty-thousand people uttering at once, “Why didn’t he catch that?”
From the moment Jay Glazer broke the Brandon Marshall-to-the-Bears story, it all changed. The organization now values weapons. They sign em. They draft em. Kick returners don’t need to play wide receiver when you’ve got wide receivers playing wide receiver.
CIRCUMSTANCE #2: EMERY FIRES LOVIE SMITH
I wrote it many times but Lovie Smith, especially early in his Bears tenure, used his Big Sandy, down home, aw shucks demeanor to mask an arrogant and stubborn personality. If you believe Einstein’s maxim that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different result then Lovie Smith was the bat shit craziest coach the league has ever seen. How many times did he need to see Hester line up incorrectly, Kellen Davis drop the ball, Mike Green look lost over the top of the defense…etc?
Lovie would never have removed Hester from the offensive game plan, results be damned. He would sooner have replaced him entirely in the return game. Because, you know, why would you want the greatest kick returner in the history of the sport to return kicks?
CIRCUMSTANCE #3: BEARS RECOMMIT TO HESTER
Hester was an emotional play room in the wake of the Lovie Smith firing, flirting in the media with hanging ’em up for good. From a Yahoo! article on Decembeer 31, 2012:
“I don’t even know if I want to play again,” Hester said. “That’s been something on my mind for two years. It’s not (much fun for me anymore). I’ve got my workers comp papers in my pocket. We’ll see how I feel. I’m going to go home and talk to my wife and talk to my family and see where we go from there. I got two beautiful kids, man, two boys. A lot of stress has been on my mind lately.”
But Phil Emery, Marc Trestman and new special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis recommitted to him with honesty. They told him to forget about playing and do what he does best: return the damn ball. From an ESPN article on April 18, 2013:
“That was in the past,” Hester said. “At the same time, people were just emotional, upset. So I would say that (my remarks were) emotion and upset coming out of me. I really wasn’t thinking about what I was saying. That’s in the past. You say things you really don’t mean when you’re upset. That’s how it was.”
“They want to see me do good,” Hester said. “Whatever it takes to bring the special teams back, the return game back to what we used to have, they really, really wanted that. They told me, ‘This is your passion. You know what you’re good at. You know what you’re great at. Let’s get it back to what it was.’”
Makes plenty of sense, doesn’t it? #NotToLovie
Sunday against Minnesota the burst was back in the return man and the electricity was back in the building. Does he deserve all the credit in the world for swallowing his pride, acknowledging his offensive failings, and returning to his most dominant post? Yes. But credit must also be given to the organizational decisions that allowed this renaissance. The Bears, as a team, have rebuilt the Devin Hester Lovie Smith seemed hellbent on destroying. Now they reap the rewards.