Fixing special teams can help other units

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Through all the talk about fixing a stagnant offense devoid of any playmakers at wide receiver, or at last finding that elusive franchise quarterback who can be depended on for a full 16 games, there’s a unit in need of an upgrade flying under the radar.

In spite of all the attention given to the coaching changes on the defensive side of the ball, and the need to fix a poor pass rush or to finally stabilize the safety position, there’s another side of the ball which cannot be ignored.

For the first two seasons of Devin Hester’s NFL career, the Bears, by no surprise, were the No. 1 special teams unit in the league. The way he took the league by storm as a rookie was unexpected, to say the least, and it helped hide offensive inadequacies as well as create advantageous field position for the defense. Few people expected him to duplicate that success in Year 2, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find a single soul who thought he could do it three years in a row.

Teams began to catch up with Hester in Season 3 and no longer had to kick it away from him for fear of getting burned by a big return. Kicking it out of bounds or squibbing the ball was no longer an effective method of maintaining field position because Hester’s lack of burst, field vision and awareness were not what they once were. Something happened to Hester that caused him to completely fall from his throne as the NFL’s top kick returner.

Some, like Bears GM Jerry Angelo, speculate that it was his increased workload on offense that caused his decline in numbers. Others, like special teams coordinator Dave Toub, believe he was a lot more cautious this past year and less of a risk-taker because he knew he’d get more chances to score on offense, whereas when he was a rookie, his only action was on special teams. And others feel like the loss of special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo and the breakdown of blocking on kick returns led to his downfall.

I happen to believe it’s all of the above. It was to be expected that Hester’s numbers would decline rapidly because he set the bar so high in his first two years that the expectations were unrealistic that he could do it three years in a row.

I’m fine with keeping Hester on offense and cutting him out of kickoff returns, if only because the Bears have another dynamic kick returner in Danieal Manning. But for Manning’s benefit, and to help Hester on punt returns, the Bears can and need to upgrade their special teams units in addition to fixing the problems on offense and defense this off-season.

Field position is one of the most critical aspects of the game of football, and the Bears need to utilize the weaponry they have. We saw first hand in 2006 and a lot of 2007 how field position can help the Bears’ offense score more easily and allow the defense a bigger cushion with which to play. Although they’re not on the field as much, or for as long as either of the other two units, their impact on the game can be as great on any given Sunday.

The Bears went out and made a quiet trade in 2005. They sent reserve tight end John Owens and a conditional draft pick to the Miami Dolphins for special teams standout Ayanbadejo, which wound up being one of the best deals Angelo has made to date. Rather than pay him money he deservedly earned through his Pro Bowl work with the team, Angelo chose to let him walk this past off-season and gave contract extensions to other players who certainly did not perform up to expectations in 2008.

With other needs to fill, Angelo does not need to pay big money for a special teams star, but he does need to add quality depth to both sides of the ball so that those reserves looking for playing time will give their full effort on special teams.

With so much money tied up to the defense, don’t expect the Bears to make a huge splash this off-season on that side of the ball. But you’d be surprised how much better they’ll look with the makeover to the defensive coaching staff and better field position with which to operate.

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