It's time to shed the cynicism
The Bears' past is prologue, and the future is inviting, rather than treacherous.
CHICAGO -- To me, the best thing about the Chicago Bears' current state of nirvana is the return of Devin Hester as the baddest man in football.
When it comes to the Bears, I'm more cynical than the most hardened sports talk radio caller and the most virulent Lovie Smith hater. But I've softened considerably this season, mostly because of Hester's exploits.
Hester, of course, set the NFL record with his 14th career return for a touchdown in the Bears' 40-14 blowout of Minnesota a week ago. He has three punt return touchdowns this season and is doing some kickoff returns, along with Johnny Knox and Danieal Manning. He has nearly taken a half-dozen other kicks in for scores, with the kicker managing to trip him up.
Six days after setting the record and giving a tearful, touching oration, Hester returned a punt 38 yards and a kick 40 yards in the Bears' 38-34 win over the New York Jets, both kicks leading to Bears touchdowns in the third quarter. One of those scores was Hester's 25-yard catch, and both were more exciting, more inspiring than simple yardage can relate.
Whenever Hester touches a kick this season, you feel like he can take it to the house, and that sublime confidence is contagious, not only to himself but to his teammates. Personally, I think it's a sign. After all, how much did his rookie season mean to the Super Bowl team in 2006?
I firmly believe that his surprise return to kickoff duties in the first game of the Bears' second half of the season, the 27-13 win over the Vikings to improve to 6-3, inspired his team.
Why? Because talent respects talent and no one, save Julius Peppers, awes his teammates like Hester. It's impossible to miss. So is it coincidental that the Bears are 6-1 since he started taking kicks again?
In January, I was talking to Willie Gault, and his first idea on how to "fix" the 7-9 Bears was to have Hester to focus on returns.
"The guy's the best thing since sliced bread at kickoff returns, and you take him off?" he said. "I know the coaches are saying, 'We don't want him get hurt and not be able to play receiver.' But that's what he does. He's a kickoff and punt return specialist. That's it. It's like taking a drummer and getting him to play the sax."
Gault was right, of course, though Hester is more than serviceable at receiver.
Hester's success has once again helped an uneven offense get a better footing with unparalleled field position. No team has a better average starting field position than Chicago.
"There's no doubt our special teams is the best in the league, that's pretty obvious," tight end Greg Olsen said after Sunday's win. "We're very thankful for the short fields we've gotten."
I enjoy Hester because he's so uncomplicated. He's the best at what he does, and there's little argument.
In the real world of the Chicago Bears, it's not that simple. There is a room for argument at Halas Hall, it's called the working press room.
Certainly, the Bears give us a lot of fodder.
From the perspective gained by watching this roller-coaster season, we can easily see how the offense could fail miserably in the playoffs, how the Cover 2 base can easily be picked apart by a good quarterback. If Jay Cutler throws picks and the defense can't force turnovers, it'll be a quick surrender.
This isn't a perfect team by any imagination, and because of that, I feel like we've wasted so much time dissecting its myriad faults, real and exaggerated. Thus, this season hasn't been as enjoyable as it should have been.
At his Monday postmortem, Lovie Smith summarized the team's health -- and the season really -- with one, simple sentence.
"Some years," he said, "things just go your way."
And that's just perfect, isn't it?
Simple, truthful and concise. It's fitting it came from a man of few aphorisms and as of this writing, 11 wins and counting.
Like most coaches, Smith likes to focus on the present with a Zen-like intensity. And for now that should apply to Bears fans as well. With one game left and the playoffs on the horizon, take this week to think positive thoughts.
The past is prologue and the future is inviting, rather than treacherous.
Remember all that clucking we did about the Bears' fearsome final month? Yeah, the Patriots jacked them up; but join the club. The Bears got breaks, sure, but every team does. It's trite to think the Bears have simply squeaked past inferior competition, even though that call on Calvin Johnson in Week 1 was pretty lame.
Starting around midseason, I figured this last game would decide the Bears' playoff fate, but now that it's less meaningful, I don't see it as unwinnable.
Crazy as it sounds, the Bears have nothing to fear from the Packers. A playoff berth and a top-three seed are assured, and there's no guarantee that a first-round bye would be that beneficial. The pressure is mostly off for the Bears, and for that reason, I think they have the edge, even in Green Bay.
Yeah, it sounds homerish, given the Packers' dominance at home and the Bears coming off a 45-17 thrashing of the Giants. And I'm sure you're thinking that given the way things have gone for the Bears this season, Aaron Rodgers will get frozen in an ice floe and the Packers' starting front seven will give up football to join a monastery in Bhutan this week.
But even with Green Bay at full strength, I think the Bears' confidence will lead them to a win, and, lightning strike me down, eventually the NFC Championship. It just feels right.
Maybe it's Hester, maybe it's Chris Harris' big plays, maybe it's Peppers' freakish ability or Cutler's recent roll, but I like this team more than ever. And like Hester hitting a hole and taking off down the sideline, my cynicism is going, going, gone. And yes, I feel ridiculous.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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