With scoring drought over, he's making Bears' foes adjust again
The longest return drought in Devin Hester's career is over, sending opponents scurrying back to the drawing board to figure out ways to stop him.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin is taking the proven path, telling rookie punter Matt Dodge he should kick the ball out of bounds when possible Sunday night against the Bears at New Meadowlands Stadium. Coughlin knows better than to take a chance because he watched Hester return a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown at the old stadium in 2006.
After a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in Monday night's victory over the Packers, Hester is feeling like he hasn't since 2007 when he was rewriting the record books.
The extraordinary start to his career — 11 kick and punt returns for touchdowns in his first two seasons — put him on a record pace, and now he needs one to tie Brian Mitchell for tops on the combined touchdown list at 13. Hester needs two punt scores to tie Eric Metcalf in that category. Now that Hester is apparently back in form, there is no telling where this ends with his confidence returned
"The way he is going, I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up with 20 touchdowns," said Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, the return man for the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. "He's at a peak now where he just goes and he is in a zone. I'm sure he will be viewed as the best of all time, and rightfully so."
The key for Hester has been learning to balance his role as a starting wide receiver along with his special teams chores. The Bears removed him from kickoff returns early last season when he was settling in as a starter. He went through a stretch of 102 returns (64 punts, 38 kickoffs) without a touchdown before hurdling the Packers' Tim Masthay into the end zone last week.
"I was sitting there saying, 'Don't you let this punter get you again,' '' Mitchell said. "I'm his biggest fan because I love people who bring that excitement and attention to the return game. I'm rooting for him to get the record. I don't call what he went through a slump. He just picked up a lot more responsibility being on offense full time."
Now, Hester is comfortable doing both. He played a key role in the Week 2 victory at Dallas with an acrobatic one-handed touchdown reception and a 38-yard catch and run that set up another touchdown. He knows coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, and now he's pulling double duty that few ever have.
"Everybody who moved from being a returner to a receiver, two or three years later, they never go back to the return game," Hester said. "I am still doing it. I thank God for that. I am figuring out how to prepare myself for game situations. I know I am going to have to do some extra conditioning here and there so when I am out there I am ready. Being a returner, you have to have fresh legs. It's not easy.
"You can see from (Carolina's) Steve Smith to Santana Moss, who came into the league being great returners. When they mastered the receiver bit, it's hard to do returning. It's a tough process I hope I will get better at. I am starting to grasp the offense, and I can start giving a little bit back to the return game."
It's what the Bears figured would happen when they remained patient through two full seasons of average returns. Paired with kickoff returners Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox, the Bears have a trio of weapons to deploy for field position. The fear was they had taken a dynamic playmaker and transformed him into a middling receiver. Now, Hester is confident in all roles and the greats who follow him closely are anxious to see his next move.
"He may have the record for most punt returns this year," Metcalf said. "It's just in a short period of time he has actually been doing it. He has done a lot of them on TV as well, so people have gotten to see him. I think he will be viewed as the best ever."
The way the Bears' defense is playing, it may be difficult for Dodge to kick away from Hester completely. When opponents are backed up deep in their own end, it's too risky to punt the ball to the sidelines. That's how he beat Masthay all the way, and Hester calls it a "green light" when he's fielding a punt near midfeld.
As for as the "White Shoes" prediction, Hester lights up at the idea.