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Why teams still kick to the Bears' Devin Hester is a mystery

Charles Tillman (33) celebrates with Bears punt returner DevHester after Hester scored punt return second quarter Chicago Bears 37-13 victory

Charles Tillman (33) celebrates with Bears punt returner Devin Hester after Hester scored on a punt return in the second quarter of the Chicago Bears 37-13 victory over the Detroit Lions Sunday November 13, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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12 Devin Hester added to his NFL record with his 12th punt return for a touchdown on his 192nd career attempt. Next on
the list is Eric Metcalf with 10
touchdowns on 351 punt returns.

Updated: December 15, 2011 10:06AM

For a while there, we seemed to be standing at the
intersection of Ego and Stupidity, once again hoping to understand why opposing teams continue to punt to Devin Hester when reason and history scream that to do so is lunacy.

To explain why the Bears blew out the Detroit Lions 37-13 on Sunday, it looked as though we were going to have to start there — with an insanity defense. Why else would the Lions give Hester, the best punt returner in NFL history, the chance to return punts?

They blamed a strong wind, and maybe that indeed was the reason, though you had the distinct feeling Lions coach Jim Schwartz would have blamed the wind for poor blocking, too, had he been given the chance. The wind was blowing at a steady 20 mph at Soldier Field, with gusts up to 30 mph.

‘‘Did you ever play golf?’’ Schwartz said. ‘‘You try to hit the fairway, don’t you? But it goes in the woods. You’ve got to make par on the 18th hole to win a major championship, and how does he put it in the woods? It’s because it doesn’t always go where you want.’’

OK, the wind was bad, but it’s hard to understand how punter Robert Malone could miss so badly trying to kick the ball out of bounds rather than to Hester, who broke open the game with an 82-yard touchdown return in the second quarter. If you’re ordered to punt the ball out of bounds upon what should be penalty of death, you’re not going to pick that moment to finesse a punt, right?

You’re going to err on the side of not letting Hester within a mile of touching the ball. And if you’re a coach, you’re not going to be reduced to introducing something as genteel as golf into a conversation about a mean, nasty, sometimes-dirty football game.

Adding to his record

The Lions dodged a bullet in the first quarter when Malone, the last line of defense, tackled Hester after a 29-yard return. You would think that once the Lions had stuck a paw into the fire, they wouldn’t again. That’s where you would be wrong.

In the second quarter, Malone booted a booming punt, which would have been fine were it not for the fact that it went to Hester again. He ran back, dropped the ball and picked it up. He paused for a second, and the combination of that and the fumble seemed to disrupt the Lions’ punt coverage.

Actually, the combination of Devin and Hester seemed to disrupt their coverage.

‘‘We tried to sideline that ball,’’ Schwartz said.

Hester ran free to the left, eventually met some interference at the Lions’ 45 from Malone, who failed to push him out of bounds, and made his way to the end zone. It was 82 yards of goofiness from the Lions, and it gave the Bears a 20-0 lead.

It was Hester’s 12th career punt return for a touchdown, increasing his NFL record. The Bears are 13-3 in games in which he returns a punt or kickoff for a touchdown.

To review: You might not want to kick to him.

‘‘Once he gets the ball, anything can happen,’’ Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. ‘‘You can’t knock the fact the guy is a living legend when it comes to punt returns, so anytime he has it, something special can happen. You’ve got to hope to contain him, not stop him.’’

To review: You contain him by not punting to him.

Demoralizing play

That return was the beginning of the end for the Lions, who soon after would crumble into a pile of interceptions, ineptitude and general ugliness.

The Lions aren’t the first team to punt to Hester, and they won’t be the last. Something happens when normally clear-thinking NFL coaches get Hester in their sights. They think they’re not punting to him until suddenly they are.

The realization doesn’t hit them until Hester is running down the sideline with a few poor slobs in pursuit. It happened Sunday at Soldier Field.

Was there a cause and effect between Hester’s return and the Lions’ collapse in the Bears’ victory? Well, a stab in the heart tends to affect breathing.

Few things are more demoralizing than watching an opposing player return a punt for a touchdown. Nothing is more demoralizing than watching a punt return when you know it never should have been returned.

Hester left the game in the third quarter with what the Bears described as an ‘‘illness.’’ If that’s what sickness looks like, where do we sign up?

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