LAKE FOREST, ILL. (AP) - As he met with Devin Hester for the first time, the message came into focus for Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman.
It was time for Hester to go back to being a return specialist. It was time to ditch the receiving duties.
“The conversation to my recollection was, `It sounds to me like you just want to be a returner, and that’s OK with me. I would like you to be the returner and focus solely on that. If you can help our team after you feel like you’re in a position to do everything you can to be the returner,’ _ I don’t ever remember me telling him that that was the way it’s going to be,” Trestman said. “I remember the conversation being more like, `I know that’s what you want to do and I’m all in.’”
It was Trestman’s second week on the job and one big decision was out of the way.
Hester was back to focusing solely on special teams, and now, it seems he’s back to his old havoc-wreaking ways.
Ineffective a year ago, the three-time Pro Bowl pick returned five kickoffs for a team-record 249 yards in last week’s win over Minnesota.
He’ll try to keep it up against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“The only thing is when you have games like that, you strike fear back into your opponent that you’re playing,” Hester said. “That’s how it’s been in previous years. I hate the solution that everybody says I lost it. We’ve been in this situation where I have a breakout return game but then I go three, four games without a return. Then, the question comes up where, `He don’t have it because he’s played four, five games and he hasn’t done anything. I haven’t been getting any opportunities to do it.”
It’s been more than just a few games since Hester broke off the sort of returns that he kept delivering against Minnesota, and many were wondering if at age 30 he could recapture the touch that made him one of the best ever.
He’s returned more punts (12) and kickoffs (five) for touchdowns than any other player. Throw in a missed field goal return and his 18 total return touchdowns are just one behind the record held by his friend and mentor Deion Sanders, but he did not run one back to the end zone at all a year ago.
His longest kickoff return was for 40 yards last season, and he exceeded that three times against the Vikings on a rainy afternoon. The wet conditions helped him, actually.
“The balls didn’t fly out of the end zone. That’s the first way that it helped us,” special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said. “And then secondly, I think that you have to catch the ball moving forward, and he really did that in the game. I thought he did a great job of moving forward and into the ball where he was gaining speed as he caught it, which was good to see.”
He broke off a 76-yarder before being pushed out of bounds, right after Cordarrelle Patterson returned the opening kickoff 105 yards to tie a Vikings record. That led to a 1-yard touchdown catch for Martellus Bennett. He returned another one 80 yards midway through the second quarter.
“I saw him being him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I saw him with the ball in his hands and making splash plays for the Chicago Bears. That’s not out of the ordinary from my perspective.”
It was for anyone who’d been watching the Bears the past year or so.
Then again, Hester has emerged from a prolonged funk before.
He went into a big one after running rampant his first two seasons, failing to return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown in 2008 and 2009 with a bigger role on offense.
Moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line probably didn’t help, either. Hester’s own tentativeness at times and tendency to run side-to-side and backward didn’t help, and the blockers might not have been without blame, either.
Mental and physical fatigue were issues, too. It’s no secret Hester struggled to grasp the offense.
Now that he doesn’t have to worry about it, he spends more time in the weight room and getting treatment. He said his legs are fresher during the week. He has more time to focus on special teams and watch extra film with the coaches.
At practice, he has more time to work on returns.
Even so, he doesn’t regret the time on offense.
“I did have some great moments, and I did have some not-so-good moments,” Hester said. “It’s a learning experience for me. This was my first time playing receiver. It came at the highest level. … Who knows, further down in my career, I might get an opportunity to play some offense. As of right now, I prefer just doing kickoff and punt returns.”
NOTES: The Bears held CB Charles Tillman (knee) out of practice on Wednesday, but Trestman expects him to participate on Thursday. TE Martellus Bennett (shoulder) and G Kyle Long (back) were limited.
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