Devin Hester

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

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AP

What was it like to coach against Devin Hester? 'You hold your breath'

Jeff Rodgers had to gameplan for Devin Hester twice in his career as a special teams coordinator under John Fox: First, in 2010 with the Carolina Panthers, and second, in 2011 with the Denver Broncos. 

“You're holding your breath,” Rodgers, who’s in his third year as the Bears’ special teams coordinator, said. “There's been nobody like him in my generation.”

Neither of those games were necessarily the most memorable performances by Hester, who set an NFL record with 19 special teams touchdowns (14 on punt returns, five on kickoff returns). But the fact that Rodgers — like every other special teams coordinator from 2006-2016 — had to gameplan for Hester was notable in and of itself. 

“He was really the first guy that you really game-planned for and you saw different people take different approaches,” Rodgers said. “You see people try to punt the ball out of bounds. Well, defenses can combat that with some of the rush scheme so you may have to change that. Saw people try to kick fair catch balls and short because the reality is, if you played Chicago when he was rolling and you came out of the game with a 35 or 36 punt, which isn't great, but against him, you're usually taking that every time. He's as good as it gets.”

In that first meeting, on Oct. 10, 2010 in Charlotte, Rodgers’ strategy was to punt out of bounds or away from Hester to prevent him from fielding anything. 

At first, it didn’t work: Hester ripped off a 50-yard return on the first punt he fielded.

“We tried to punt the ball out of bounds and our punter put the ball about four inches from the sideline,” Rodgers said. “He reached in and got it and shot straight up the sideline.” 

From there, punter Jason Baker largely succeeded in kicking away from Hester, with his next six punts not being fielded or being fair caught. But the downside to that strategy was the Bears frequently received good starting field position — though having drives begin between the 40s was preferable to Hester ripping off a big return to set up a drive beginning in the Panthers’ red zone. 

A year later, Rodgers again had to figure out how to mute Hester’s success with the Denver Broncos. He was more successful in this Dec. 11, 2011 meeting, with Hester returning one kickoff for 25 yards and gaining 36 yards on two punt returns. Hester fair caught four punts, and one went out of bounds.

But Hester still notched returns of 26 and 10 yards despite Denver’s strategy to kick the ball as high as possible. 

“In Denver, we tried to hang it up there,” Rodgers said. “Did a good job on the first couple. Actually the best ball that our punter hit that day, that was the 2011 game, the best ball our punter hit that day with hang time and distance, he kind of circled around, went backwards, sideline, all of a sudden he turned a corner and you're holding your breath. We were able to get him on the ground, but he's a game-changer.”

The game-changing success Hester found as a return specialist should get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, unless the rather strange stinginess on special teamers in Canton continues. But there’s no doubt in Rodgers’ mind when it comes to how great Hester was — and how maddening it was to scheme against him. 

“I'd say (he) changed the game on both kickoffs and punts,” Rodgers said. “He's the best that's ever done it.”

Devin Hester leaves more than Bears, NFL records behind

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AP

Devin Hester leaves more than Bears, NFL records behind

This isn’t about Devin Hester and the Hall of Fame (can we say, “gimme?” As longtime pigskin scribe Ira Miller once said of that standard, “If they wrote the history of pro football, would they have to mention you by name?” Hester, yes, obviously). It’s about the guy, one of the quiet gentle spirits you feel fortunate to have had come through your work life.

Like so many things, when you think of Devin Hester, you get a collection of snapshots, really fun ones in this case. Well, mostly fun; sometimes “fun” doesn’t totally apply when you’re thinking about the end of something that made your Bears Sundays, well, fun.

Snapshots like…

…knowing you didn’t leave the TV when punting situations came for opponents, or didn’t take too long getting back to your seat when Devin was going to return a kickoff. Those were plays when fans sometimes dawdled in the kitchen. Before Devin…

…the touchdown return to start the 2006 Super Bowl, one of those moments with an almost cartoon quality, the roadrunner moving like someone had hit the fast-forward button for one guy and left the other 21 on the field looking like they were running in peanut butter…

…talking to Devin about whether he could put into words a kind of genius that nobody else had. What did he see, what was he thinking as he made one of those returns that simply defied human physics. He thought for a second, then just sort of laughed and said simply, “I see colors. I run away from the ones that aren’t mine.” Simple, right?...

…the Bears announcing that GM Jerry Angelo had used a second-round pick in the 2006 draft on a cornerback out of Miami. Only Hester wasn’t really a cornerback, wasn’t really anything just because he could do so many things well – returner, DB, receiver, running back – that his coaches moved him around. So what did the Bears really get? That, no one could have remotely predicted…

…the emotion that included tears when Devin learned that the Bears had gotten rid of Lovie Smith, the only coach Hester had played for. When you think pro football as being just a business, guess again. Devin had to be talked out of quitting the game that day, and it really was never quite the same for him after that, in Atlanta, Baltimore or Seattle…

…how Devin took the shredding for his shortcomings as a receiver and heard how Smith and the coaches were blasted for making him into something he wasn’t. That wasn’t the whole story, of course; the Bears wanted the football in his hands more, Devin and his agent wanted to lift the money ceiling that came with being “just a returner,” so Angelo worked out a very fair deal that was back-loaded with escalators to pay Devin $10 million over each of the last two years of the contract if he hit certain performance triggers. He didn’t, but trashing the kid for wanting to grab for the brass ring never made sense…

…the fun factor. Devin would go back to receive a kickoff and every fan in the end zone seats of Soldier Field was standing. And Devin was having a ball with it, to the point where you absolutely knew that if Devin Hester decided to run instead into Lake Michigan, all he’d have to do would be wave his arm for all the kids to join him and they’d have followed the Pied Piper about anywhere he wanted to go…

that would include Canton.

Why there shouldn’t be a debate: Devin Hester belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

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AP

Why there shouldn’t be a debate: Devin Hester belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Devin Hester announced his retirement on Tuesday, putting an official end to the greatest career a return man has ever had in NFL history.

That’s not an opinion borne out of a view through Bear goggles. Consider his accomplishments:

— Most punt return touchdowns (14) of anyone in NFL history, and it’s not particularly close. Eric Metcalf is second on that career list with 10.

— One of five players to return at least 300 punts and average 10 or more yards per return. Hester’s career average of 11.73 yards per return is the highest among that group; among players with at least 200 punt returns, it’s fourth — still a sign of remarkable consistency over an 11-year career.

— What he did in 2010 was other-worldly: He’s the only player in NFL history to return at least 30 punts and average 17 or more yards per return in a single season. He took three punts back for touchdowns that year, and also averaged 35.58 yards per kick return, the sixth-highest single-season average of any player to return at least 10 kicks in a given year.

— One of two players with five or more kick return touchdowns and five or more punt return touchdowns. The other player, Dante Hall, had six kickoff return scores and six punt return scores; Hester combined for an NFL record 19 return touchdowns in his career. He returned a missed field goal for a touchdown, too, giving him 20 total non-offensive touchdowns – another NFL record.

— One of 10 players to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in a single game (Dec. 11, 2006 against the St. Louis Rams).

— One of 12 players to return at least 250 kicks and average 24 or more yards per return.

— The first person to ever return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown.

— Three first-team All-Pro seasons and four Pro Bowls from 2006-2014. Hester’s impact wasn’t only limited to his first couple years in the league; he was consistently outstanding for nearly a decade.

Even if you’re not convinced by his resume that Hester is the greatest returner of all time, it’s hard to come up with a case he doesn’t belong in Canton. If a Hall of Fame is supposed to tell the story of a sport, the Pro Football Hall of Fame can’t tell the story of football without including Hester.

That’s because Hester changed the way kick and punt returns were viewed. He alluded to it in his statement announcing his retirement — “Commissioner Goodell, you can put the kickoff back at the 30” — and while the league said the decision to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in 2011 due to player safety concerns, it did have an impact on return scores. From 2011 through 2016, there were 49 kicks returned for a touchdown; in the previous six seasons, 95 kicks were returned for scores, four of which were by Hester. We may never see another player like Hester who can make such an impact on punt and kick returns.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is notoriously stingy with special teamers, though. Morten Andersen and Jan Stenerud are the only pure placekickers enshrined in Canton (George Blanda was also a quarterback; Lou Groza also played tackle), and Ray Guy is the only punter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But a prior aversion to special teamers shouldn’t be what keeps Hester out of Canton. His impact on so many games cannot be understated, and deserves recognition in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — preferably, with his game-winning punt return against the Arizona Cardinals playing on a loop.

Devin Hester was ridiculous. It would be ridiculous to keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.