After eight years of electrifying kick returns, the Chicago Bears made the decision last week to not resign Devin Hester and end an era of one of the most prolific special teams players to ever play.
During his rookie season in 2006, Hester returned two kickoffs, three punts, and one miss field goal for touchdowns. He also returned the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown. Since that rookie season, he has not repeated that same level of success but has played a role in many Bears victories over his eight seasons there.
Many fans will claim that it was time for Hester to move on and that he was no longer an effective returner. However, last season he had his best statistical year with 1442 kickoff return yards and a punt return for a touchdown. Even with a slight increase in production it was time for the Bears to move on; it was getting hard to paying a contract for a player that could only return kicks.
Hester leaves the Bears tied with Deion Sanders for most special teams touchdowns at 19 and holds the NFL record for punt returns with 13.
It will be hard as a fan to accept that the threat of a quick score will not be around awaiting a kick return anytime soon. Sure, whoever the Bears put back there will have a chance to return kicks but it will be hard for them to replace the pure speed and knack to find holes that Hester possessed.
Kick returns have the ability to have a good season or two that will excite fans, but they are not supposed to be so talented that they are able to capture the imagination of a fan base for eight seasons. That is the pure skill that Hester had, he was able to be a threat even when he was going through a long scoring drought. It will be a while before Chicago sees that again.
There are many Bears fans that thought his time had been over for a while, and others that believed he was more of a liability than a help. He had the propensity to take the ball out when he should have just taken a knee and he did end his Bears career with 34 fumbles. Those are hazards of the game. In 2007, he had both a kickoff return and punt return to keep the Bears in a game against the Denver Broncos that it would go on to win. That is what should be remembered about Hester.
Until the end, I was one who continued to believe in Hester. Maybe his returns were becoming too far and wide between but I like to be caught up in imagination and hope, I am a Cubs fan after all, and when he did break one, it was something of beauty. I had the luck of seeing him return a punt for a touchdown live in person and I will never forget it.
It will be hard for the Bears to replace Hester at the kick returning position. The next guy will have trouble exciting the fan base but in time it will happen. It looks like Hester will be reuniting with former coach Lovie Smith down in Tampa. If that is the case, he would travel back to Chicago for the first time as a visitor. The fans would do wise to applaud all that he has done and then pray that he does not prove once again that he is “ridiculous”.