More than just Devin Hester
Bears' special teams have contributed to surprising season in various ways
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Blocking for Devin Hester is reward enough, you'd think.
"If they block hard, they have a chance to be a 'SportsCenter' highlight," said Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly.
And then there's always the reality that if not special teams, then what? After the rationalizing and the reconciling, the initial disappointment and perhaps bitterness at not playing on offense or defense, it often comes to that.
They may be running into each other at roughly the same velocity as a car motoring down a side street, but hey, at least they're in the league.
For the best teams, however, special teams like the Bears', it's more than that. Has to be.
Happy just to be here?
"I'm just happy to be able to move around freely," said Garrett Wolfe.
Wolfe may not be the best special-teams player on the Bears, but he's close. He's also emblematic of the stuff of Bears special-teamers. The second-leading tackler behind Corey Graham on special teams, Wolfe lacerated his kidney in three places on the opening kickoff of the Bears' Nov. 8, 2009 loss to Arizona.
"I appreciate being able to walk, run and sit up and sit down without having my side hurt," Wolfe said. "I remember leaving that hospital that day and having to leave in a wheelchair because I couldn't walk. Football was the farthest thing from my mind because what am I going to do if I lose a kidney?"
He "didn't feel like an athlete again" until March, when he was allowed to work out. In training camp last summer, as he hoped to enter his fourth NFL season, Wolfe was the fourth running back behind Kahlil Bell and on the bubble to even make the team.
At 5-feet-7, 185 pounds, you might wonder how he made it this far if you never watched him on special teams. Or saw him at Northern Illinois.
A third-round draft pick out of Northern in 2007, he was the school's all-time leading rusher and the fourth player in NCAA history to amass over 1,500 yards rushing three times. But Wolfe hadn't tackled anyone since high school when he came to the Bears.
"I remember my first preseason game," Wolfe said. "I was on kickoff and I remember the returner was coming right at me. ... Here I am, a third-round draft pick just coming from a great college career and I remember thinking, 'I don't want any part of this at all.'
"Now those are situations I'm excited about because I get the opportunity to make a tackle and also get special-teams points."
The Bears love getting points like kids love getting tickets at Chuck E. Cheese. Some teams give the top special-teams tackler a watch. The Bears award points for such things as tackles, knockdowns, blocks, first guy to the ball, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
"It's no prizes or anything," said Rod Wilson, a fifth-year pro who has also played with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. "It's just knowing you've done your job. It's just competition between us. And the system they have installed with the points allows us to compete a little more because everyone wants to win the points."
Last week in the Bears' victory over Seattle, Graham, a four-phase special-teamer, scored 31 points.
"Twenty points is off the charts, 30 is crazy, so he had an unbelievably productive game," said Bears special-teams coach Dave Toub.
For the past seven years, Toub has presided over one of the top special-teams units in the NFL. No. 1 in the league in 2006 and 2007, the Bears will finish in the top five this season when the final rankings are released after the Super Bowl. And yes, Toub has had Robbie Gould and Devin Hester and Brad Maynard. But he has also instilled an expectation and sense of pride in the rank and file that has managed to carry over from year to year in a business with very little carryover.
"Once they get here, we brainwash them," Toub laughed. "They come here and they understand just from the veterans, they talk about how important special teams is ... Guys want to be part of it, it's a pride thing. They understand they're going to make the team through special teams. So we've got it going. It's been seven years now and we've got the ball rolling. It's who we are is a good special-teams unit."
The players all credit Toub, who is a threat to be snatched up by another team in any given offseason, and his assistant Chris Tabor.
"The schemes that Dave and Chris Tabor came up with are great. They put guys in position to win individual battles and guys have bought into that because they know they can have success," Gould said. "And when your head coach puts such a premium and such a high expectation for special teams, that trickles down and guys understand that. They understand their role may not be on offense or defense but making plays on special teams."
"The simple fact," Wilson said, "is that we are taught to just be relentless because we have guys like Devin and Danieal [Manning], who can break it at any time. Plus we're pretty aggressive and we just love to compete.
"I love playing with these guys, it's fun. A lot of special-teams units I see, they don't have a lot of fun doing it. It's like 'Aw, special teams,' but we actually enjoy it. Everybody wants to play defense, everybody wants to play offense, of course all of us do. But we know we play a big role. We all understand our roles and our role is huge to this team."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.