Hester regresses as kick returner

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I could have used one of any number of metaphors or clichés as the headline for this post, and Lord knows there are many of them.

Departure delayed for Windy City Flyer.

No runway available for Windy City Flyer.

Windy City Flyer hits turbulence.

But, it’s no time to be clever or cute with anecdotes and one-liners. So, I chose a more direct message and that’s to say that Devin Hester is simply not getting it done as a kick returner.

I’m not even talking about his consecutive games drought without a touchdown. Bears fans were spoiled the past two years as Hester set the single-season touchdown record in his rookie season of 2006 and then broke it one year later. As a result, most fans forget that returning a kickoff or punt for a touchdown is not only difficult, but not altogether common.

The NFL set a record for most return touchdowns last year with 42. But through nine weeks this year, there have been just 5 kickoffs and 9 punts returned for scores, which sets the league on pace to finish with approximately 26.

Not only is Hester scoreless this season, but his return average doesn’t even make the Top 10 or even the Top 32 — the number of teams in the league.

Hester is currently No. 62 on the list with a 20.9 kickoff return average and No. 33 on the punt return list with a paltry 6.2 average. But the most discouraging statistic of all is that Hester is tied with a handful of players with 2 fumbles on returns.

As I said in Monday Morning Quarterback following Sunday’s win against Detroit, fumbles simply cannot be tolerated from kick returners:

Lost in all the “Hester Hoopla” over the last two years is that a kick returner’s first two duties are to catch the football and to protect the ball on the return. Picking up as many yards as you can is a distant third. I’d rather take the ball every time at the 20-yard line than for Hester to dance around while trying to be elusive and give the opponent the ball in the red zone.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. All statistics aside, Hester is simply not doing what is expected of a kick returner.

We all knew he had questionable decision making prior to this season. And we’ve seen it several times this year, most notably against Indianapolis when he took the second half kickoff from 7 yards deep in the end zone and was tackled at the 3-yard line. And again versus the Eagles when he chased down a punt that was bouncing toward the end zone, picked it up and ran laterally before being pushed out of bounds at the 3-yard line for a loss of 8 yards.

We also knew Hester was prone to putting the ball on the turf. He had 8 fumbles in 2006 and 7 fumbles last year.

But what we’re not used to seeing — and what has been Hester’s biggest problem this season — is his tentativeness on returns. Here’s a compilation of his return touchdowns from YouTube. Ignore what he does when he’s in the open field — although it is fun to watch — and concentrate on what he does when he catches the ball.

As you can see, only on a few of the punts does he set up his blocks. On the majority of the punt returns and all of the kickoff returns, he catches the ball and heads straight up field with a confident burst.

So, how do the Bears and Hester remedy this problem? One idea, about which I actually agree with David Haugh — as rare as it is — is bringing in Danieal Manning on kickoffs if and when he ever gets healthy. Manning actually has about the same speed as Hester and there is no hesitation when he is returning kickoffs. He catches the ball and heads straight up the field, hitting the wedge with great burst.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care if Hester ever returns another kick for a touchdown as long as he stops putting the ball on the ground. Teams are starting to learn that they no longer have kick away from him because combined with the Bears’ lack of blocking, Hester just isn’t the same confident kick returner we’ve come to know as the Windy City Flyer.

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