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Are Bears' special teams best ever?

Danieal Manning has 17 kickoff returns more than 40 yards since 2008.  |  Nam Y. Huh~AP

Danieal Manning has 17 kickoff returns of more than 40 yards since 2008. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: April 26, 2011 4:45AM

Consider what Devin Hester has accomplished as returner during his brief NFL career and how Robbie Gould has become the fifth most accurate kicker in league annals. Factor in where special teams coordinator Dave Toub’s units have ranked and what the Bears have done on special teams takes on historical significance.

“You’d have to say it’s matching the best that has ever been done because they’re so consistent,” said former Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil. “You have a team once in a while that has a great year and next year they aren’t even close. The Bears have been consistent. From time to time one team has had a spectacular year that might have topped their performance, but no team has been more consistent.”

There may not be two people more qualified to put what the Bears have done on special teams in historical perspective than Marv Levy and Vermeil. Vermeil was the league’s first full-time special teams coach with the Washington Redskins before going on to lead the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams to Super Bowls. When he left George Allen’s staff, he was replaced by Levy, who later emphasized special teams and was rewarded with consistently outstanding performances from the third phase while leading the Buffalo Bills to four AFC championships.

The Bears had a special teams advantage over most teams while winning the NFC North and clinching the second seed in the playoffs. It’s a trend that must continue if they hope to start a Super Bowl run Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks visit Soldier Field for a divisional playoff game.

“They are superb,” Levy said. “They have the best special teams in the National Football League, and that’s an integral reason why the Bears are where they are. For some reason, there are too many head coaches — and Lovie [Smith] is not one of them — who give lip service to the kicking game but overlook it. The Bears pay attention to it and, boy, does it pay off.”

Special teams rankings developed by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News have become the gold standard. Although the rankings, which incorporate 22 different statistical categories, aren’t released until after the Super Bowl, the Bears project that they will rank fourth overall.

In Toub’s seven years with the team, the Bears have finished no lower than 11th and were No. 1 in 2006 and 2007.

“It’s my first year here, but I understand why they are so good,” said linebacker Brian Iwuh, who played for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season. “They have a system. Everybody listens, everybody works hard and everybody plays hard. Special teams is about effort and coach Toub puts us in position to make plays and also we have great athletes back there like Devin Hester.

“When you have great athletes, a coach who knows what he wants, believes in what he puts out there and gets his players to buy in, you can be real good.”

Hester led the league in punt-return average (17.1) after having a league-high nine returns of 20 yards or more. He also led the league in kick-return average at 35.6. Fellow kick returner Danieal Manning has 17 kickoff returns of 40 yards or more since 2008, which is tops in the league.

With so much focus on Hester, people may not realize that since 2004, the Bears have blocked an NFL-best 20 kicks, and punter Brad Maynard has landed the most punts inside the 20. Corey Graham led the league with 22 special teams tackles in 2010, which was four more than his closest pursuer.

Since Toub’s arrival, the Bears lead the league in punt return yards, touchdowns (13) and punt return average.

“[Toub is] very good at scheming other teams,” Maynard said. “He’s very good at changing the scheme during the game. We work on it a lot. You have to give our guys credit to handle the amount of stuff he puts in weekly. You talk about [offensive coordinator Mike] Martz’s game plans. If there was a special teams game plan that was comparable it would be Dave Toub’s every week. We have a lot of stuff that goes in and our guys do a good job of listening and at any point in the game if something is not working he’s got something else to go to.”

While many give the bulk of the credit to Toub, it takes an organizational commitment to achieve what the Bears have on special teams. From general manager Jerry Angelo to Smith, the Bears are committed to making sure Toub has what he needs to field special-teams units that may rank among the best in history.

“When it comes from the top, the players understand how important it is and there is a pride factor,” Toub said. “It has taken on a life of its own. It’s who we are after seven years.”

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