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More Devin Hester plays offense, less effective he is as returner

Bears punt returner DevHester stiff arms Panthers kicker Olindo Mare Bears 34-29 wover CarolinPanthers Sunday October 2 2011 Soldier Field.

Bears punt returner Devin Hester stiff arms Panthers kicker Olindo Mare in the Bears 34-29 win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday October 2, 2011, at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 28, 2012 11:29AM



They called Richard Dent ‘‘Colonel’’ because, like Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, he did one thing right.

As it turned out, Dent could stop the run, too. But that’s not why he got paid the big bucks.

And Dent is in the Hall of Fame. So there shouldn’t be any shame in acknowledging that, above all else, Devin Hester does one thing right — or one thing best: He returns kicks.

Unlike Dent, though, Hester is getting paid the big bucks to be a wide receiver. And therein lies the problem as the Bears and Hester try to snap out of a kick-return drought: The harder the Bears try to make Hester a receiver, the more trouble Hester has doing what he does best.

Coach Lovie Smith doesn’t buy that. Special-teams coordinator Dave Toub doesn’t buy that. And Hester doesn’t buy that. But their resistance flies in the face of numbers that indicate Hester is a more productive kick returner when he’s less focused on offense.

Hester returned six kicks for touchdowns in each of his first two seasons in the NFL (2006 and 2007). He didn’t play wide receiver as a rookie and was eased into the position midway through the 2007 season.

It wasn’t until Hester held out of training camp and forced the Bears to pay him the wage of a No. 1 receiver that he began struggling on kick returns. He didn’t return a kick for a touchdown in 2008 or 2009, which were his most productive seasons as a wide receiver.

And since Hester rediscovered the kick-return magic in 2010, his success has followed an interesting pattern: The fewer plays he gets on offense, the more productive he is on special teams.

Based on play-participation numbers from profootballfocus.com, here’s how it shakes out:

† When Hester participated in 40 or more plays on offense in 2009 and 2010, he averaged 10.2 yards per punt return (33 returns, 337 yards) with one touchdown. When he participated in fewer than 40 plays on offense, he averaged 22 yards per punt return (33 returns, 727 yards) with four touchdowns.

† When Hester participated in 40 or more plays on offense in 2009 and 2010, he averaged 18.9 yards per kickoff return (22 returns, 416 yards) with no touchdowns. When he participated in fewer than 40 plays on offense, he averaged 30.6 yards per kickoff return (25 returns, 764 yards) with one touchdown.

Toub said the Bears have looked at the numbers to see whether there’s a correlation between Hester’s production on offense and special teams. And it’s true that Hester has been unproductive this season, no matter his number of offensive plays.

‘‘We look at that all the time,’’ Toub said. ‘‘That’s not an issue. He’s going to come out of this. It’s just a matter of time.’’

But the fact that Hester’s problem this season has evolved from a matter of ‘‘a block here or a block there’’ to a decision-making issue seems to indicate it’s a matter of focus and concentration. It sure seems like the less Hester has on his mind, the better off he’ll be.



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