Devin Hester is the greatest kick returner in NFL history. That type of hyperbole is usually reserved for one of the 17 “experts” sitting behind a desk on the football pre-game shows. Every other word out of their mouths is some outlandish claim like “this is the biggest game of the season,” or “this guy is the toughest in the National Football League” (it apparently is a league mandate to use the full words instead of the acronym).
In a world of hyperbole, the opening line of this article is true. Devin Hester is the greatest kick returner in the NFL (I’ll expect a fine from the commissioner’s office) history. On Sunday, when he scampered 69 yards past would-be Carolina Panthers tacklers, he passed Eric Metcalf to become the all-time leader in punt returns with 11. That adds to his NFL record of 15 total return touchdowns (punt and kickoff). The numbers, and the visuals, speak for themselves, but my question is, why in the world would anyone kick to this guy?
Ron Rivera, the coach of the Panthers, played his entire nine year career as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. He won a Super Bowl as a player in 1985 and was the defensive coordinator for the Bears in 2006 when they made a run back to the Super Bowl. He is VERY familiar with Devin Hester. In a game in which the Bears defense gave up 543 yards, the most given up by a Bears defense in 29 years, why would Rivera even take the chance of Hester breaking one off? He should know better.
Jason Baker, the 33 year old punter for the Panthers, should know better. Every punter in the league wakes up in a cold sweat the night before playing the Bears just thinking about having to kick to Hester. Instead of a high punt, providing enough time for his coverage team to surround Hester, or an angled punt out of bounds, Baker lauched a line drive punt, down the middle of the field allowing Hester to field it cleanly and pick his spot with ample running room. There is no upside for a coverage team when Devin Hester has room to run. Whether by design or punter ineptitude, that was one both Rivera and Baker wish they could have back. I guarantee Baker didn’t sleep well Sunday night.
Hester burst on the scene in 2006 when he was drafted out of “The U.” Ironically, he was drafted as a cornerback, which the Bears could have used on Sunday to slow down Steve Smith (181 yards receiving). In his first game as a pro, he returned a punt for a touchdown and later that year he returned a punt 83 yards against the Arizona Cardinals in the famous Dennis Green-“Now if you want to crown them, then crown
their (expletive deleted)! But they are who we thought they were! And we let ‘em off the hook!”-game. The guy has been doing this since he first started in the league so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when he takes a punt to the house.
Recently, Hester has been the target of harsh criticism based on his play as a wide receiver. Pundits point to his lack of size and inexperience in his route running. My only criticism for him was his celebration after he ran back his record breaking punt. Sumersaults? Really? Swaying his arms back and forth like Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel Air would have been better. At least he didn’t face plant on a back flip like his teammate Marion Barber. Gymnasts they are not.
The fact remains that Hester is as unstoppable a force returning kicks as Bo Jackson was in Tecmo Bowl for Nintendo. His value to the Bears should never be questioned. While he is not the number one receiver the Bears had hoped he was would become, the expectations were unrealistic to begin with. Hester needs to be put in a position to succeed by surrounding him with big, physical receivers who draw attention so that Hester can stretch the defense long or catch screen passes and make plays. All the while, defending his crown as the most electric, most feared, best hair, (insert hyperbole here), and greatest return man in the history of the NF..err.. National Football League.
And continue putting the “special” in special teams.