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Demystifying Devin: Bears' Hester goes down easy

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Mike Nadel

Storyteller, wise guy, observer, analyst, husband, dad. One-stop shopping, baby!

Now that the Bears have turned Devin Hester from the best return man in recent NFL history to a No. 3 receiver who is getting a No. 1's paycheck - with math like that, no wonder their season smells like No. 2! - have you noticed how easy Hester is to tackle?

When he was catching punts and kickoffs, operating in the open field and running past people, who knew?

With Hester now working the middle of the field, catching screen passes and running end-arounds, it's become obvious: Devin is easier to knock down than the old lady George Costanza bowled over when he thought there was a fire at a kid's birthday party.

This revelation is part of the Demystification of Devin, who used to be the Eighth Natural Wonder of the World but now just makes Bear Country wonder what the heck happened to him.

Hester's peers don't wonder. They simply rely on old information. 

A recent Sports Illustrated players' poll asked: "Who is the league's most dangerous return man?"

Nearly half of the 296 NFL players surveyed named, you guessed it, good ol' No. 23.

These guys are so 2006!

Yes, the poll was conducted in September, so it doesn't take into account that Hester ranks only 17th in punt returns this season (9.9 yard average) and hasn't returned a single kickoff. But ... Hello! Put down your Madden NFL 08 controllers and pay attention!!

Hester got so out of sorts last year, when he was trying to learn how to line up and where to run on offense, that he was the NFL's 57th-ranked punt returner - 6.2 yards per. And he was 65th in kickoff returns before Lovie Smith mercifully gave those duties to the spelling-challenged Danieal Manning.

Mr. Dangerous hasn't taken one to the house since the 2007 season finale, which also was the last time he had a punt return longer than 33 yards. But hey, at least he led all return men in fumbles last season.

Opposing coaches used to fear him - and for good reason. The man had 13 returns for touchdowns in his first two seasons in the league, including one in the Super Bowl and another for 108 yards on a missed field goal. Opponents used to punt away from him and kick the ball out of bounds, even if it meant giving the Bears great field position. What a weapon.

Ah, memories.

Punters now just boot the ball directly to Hester, daring him to be the special guy he once was. He hasn't come close to making them pay. As has been the case after he catches passes, opposing players barely have to breathe on him to make him fall down and go boom. Strong with the football, he ain't.

In what has been a humiliating season for his team, Hester set a new standard of futility in last week's loss at San Francisco. He failed to gain separation from a defender and then slipped, letting Jay Cutler's pass get intercepted. His softness was put on display when he was bumped off his route by an official, setting the stage for another INT. He averaged under 7 yards a catch. He gained 4 yards on two punt returns. The few times he had the ball, he was taken down when barely touched. And he was benched briefly after committing penalties (false start, holding) on consecutive plays.

Dangerous? Sure. To the Bears.

"I just have to get back into a groove," an embarrassed Hester told the Tribune's Vaughn McClure earlier this week. "When it's my fault, it's my fault."

Thing is, Hester actually has made progress as a receiver. He has caught 48 passes for 596 yards - not exactly Reggie Wayne or Andre Johnson numbers, but decent nonetheless. He has better-than-expected hands, and opponents have to respect his speed.

Then again, NBC's Cris Collinsworth, a former All-Pro receiver, repeatedly criticized Hester for failing to run NFL-quality routes. And man, was Hester easy to tackle. Hines Ward, he's not.

So what's the solution? Decrease his offensive load, move him back to the kickoff team, let him operate more "in space" and turn him back into Dangerous Devin?

Afraid not. There's no going back now. He's paid as if he's a No. 1 receiver and the Bears have nobody better.

Anyway, in a few weeks - about the time the Bears are officially eliminated from playoff contention - you'll want to check out another revealing poll showcasing the NFL's latest trends.

Spoiler Alert!: 58.6 percent of respondents name Orlando Pace the league's top offensive lineman.

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1 Comment

doug nicodemus said:

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man i hope i got rid of that lame pothole with a orange cone in it avatar...we need an edit switch we need an edit switch ...so we can edit out our mistakes...

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