Devin Hester’s departure from Bears seems inevitable
BY PATRICK FINLEY Staff Reporter March 4, 2014 10:01PM
Chicago Bears' Devin Hester catches a kick off during the second half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Updated: March 5, 2014 7:19PM
If this is it — if Devin Hester has nothing but green grass between him and free agency — it’s easy to predict heartbreak, if not outrage, from Bears fans.
Perhaps the sport’s all-time greatest return man, Hester has spent his career wowing Chicagoans. He returned the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI 92 yards for a touchdown, a fastest-to-score-in-the-big-game record that stood until the Broncos’ laughable safety last month.
His departure this offseason, which looks more likely with each passing day, would enable Bears loyalists to list two likely Hall of Famers cast off in as many years.
Hester playing in a different-colored uniform — pewter or cardinal or otherwise — would stir a discontent fans never had to experience when linebacker Brian Urlacher retired last offseason rather than end his career somewhere else.
It would be strange.
But it wouldn’t be surprising.
The Bears certainly don’t want to match Hester’s $2.1 million salary from last season, not for a 31-year-old who contributes neither on offense nor defense.
At that price, on an 8-8 team, Hester’s singular skill set, as amazing as it might be, would be as useful as a maître d’ at McDonald’s.
Reaching free agency — which starts Tuesday — doesn’t guarantee Hester’s departure from the Bears, but it would allow him to better gauge his value in the marketplace.
Someone, somewhere would likely give him above the veteran minimum. Would the Bears, who have plenty of defensive problems to throw money at, do the same?
The Bears haven’t prioritized Hester the way they have, say, fellow free agent-to-be Charles Tillman.
Asked about Hester at the NFL Scouting Combine, general manager Phil Emery gave a 14-word response that was complimentary but not particularly gushing.
“He was productive,” Emery said. “He was a productive kick returner. He did a good job.”
He wasn’t wrong.
No one in the NFL logged more kickoff-return yards last year than Hester’s career-high 1,436. Thanks to the Bears’ porous defense and Hester’s confidence, he led the league with 52 kickoff returns. His 27.6-yard average was fifth-best.
Freed from playing wide receiver, Hester set a team record with 249 return yards in Week 2 and tied Deion Sanders’ career NFL record of 19 return scores — kicks, punts, interceptions and fumbles — with a punt-return touchdown in Week 7.
Hester thought he broke it five weeks later, too, until his 62-yard punt-return score was wiped out by Craig Steltz’s holding penalty in St. Louis.
As the season drew to a close, there was a sense from Hester and Bears special-teamers that he wanted to break the mark wearing navy and orange.
Hester exploring free agency — an idea that gained national traction with an NFL.com report Tuesday — seemed likely Week 17, when the Bears gave Saints practice-squad player Chris Williams a three-year contract and a roster spot.
In 2012, Williams set a Canadian Football League record with six return touchdowns while playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. With the Montreal Alouettes, Bears coach Marc Trestman had an up-close view.
The Bears’ replacement for Hester, then, already might be in their locker room.
When the season ended, Hester said he wanted an answer about his future as soon as possible. He said he wanted to retire with the team.
“To all my true Chicago fans,” he wrote on Instagram in January, “it’s not up to me whether I stay.
“It’s up to the coaches and guys upstairs in the Chicago Bears front office.”
That remains true today, as Hester barrels toward what seems increasingly inevitable.