- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- There was a time not so long ago (like earlier this season) when it was safe to wonder whether Devin Hester had lost his mojo and if he would ever return another punt or kickoff for a touchdown -- forget about breaking the NFL record.
Opponents had long since figured out how to kick, or more accurately, not to kick to him. Heading into the third week of the season, Hester had not returned a kick for a touchdown since December 2007, a span of 31 games.
And worse, he had become tentative, a word you once could not imagine sharing the same sentence with one of the all-time great returners in the game. There were even -- oh, the horror -- observations that Hester appeared eager to run out of bounds.
Of course, all of this would have been easily digested had Hester developed into the elite receiver that the Bears had promised he would be and paid him to be.
But through the first three games, Hester had a total of six catches. And even now, after the Bears' 27-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, in which Hester caught four passes (and was targeted six times) for 38 yards and a TD, he ranks behind Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Matt Forte in team receptions. He's also behind Knox, Greg Olsen and Forte in passes targeted.
The difference between Week 2 and now is the fact that Hester has gone on a full-fledged roll in the return game.
After returning punts for 28 and 62 yards (and a touchdown) in Week 3 against Green Bay, he had a 50-yarder against Carolina in Week 5 and an 89-yarder against Seattle in Week 6. And against the Vikings on Sunday, Hester returned two kickoffs for 100 yards with a long of 68, and two punts for 47 yards, with a long of 42.
"He's a bad man," teammate Brian Urlacher said of Hester. In only the most complimentary way, of course.
The kickoff returns marked Hester's first two of the season, and it's not entirely clear why he was back there.
"Danieal [Manning] is the starter," Hester said. "[But] it's tough if you're doing kickoff returns and then go straight to defense. Whenever I get fatigued on offense, he's out there, so I think it's a great 1-2 punch."
Manning said it was in the game plan.
"One thing was, we're trying to make sure Devin gets that record," he said of the NFL mark for touchdown returns (punt and kickoff combined), which Hester will break with his next one (No. 15). "He's close to getting it, so we want to give him all the looks he can get."
It hardly matters why. What was important Sunday is that Lovie Smith and Mike Martz found the right mix, Hester found the right holes, and the Vikings missed enough tackles that Hester produced the way everyone envisioned since early in his rookie season.
On top of his return heroics, Hester put the Bears ahead for good with a 19-yard scoring pass from Jay Cutler in the second quarter.
"We're just looking for ways to be productive, to get points as much as anything," Smith said. "Of course we are trying to get Devin the ball on the offensive side, but putting him back there as a single returner, you know he'll get an opportunity to make some plays on that. We're trying to score points."
Putting the ball in Hester's hands, whether on returns, the occasional gimmick play or the well-timed pass without depleting him, is obviously the way to go.
Asked if perhaps he got in his coaches' ears to return kickoffs as well as punts Sunday, Hester didn't hesitate.
"Yeah," he said with a mischievous grin.
"I just like having the ball in my hands. I feel I can do great things with the great talent that God blessed me with. I feel I can help out the team in any kind of way I can. And kickoff returns is another opportunity where I can get my hands on the ball."
Much time has been spent/wasted discussing, writing, tweeting and otherwise debating the best way to utilize the Bears receiver/returner. When asked directly, Hester has generally made it clear that he prefers being a returner to anything else.
But he was being paid to be an elite receiver, the argument went. Of course, that wasn't true at all, for he would not have commanded his four-year, $30 million deal unless he was the greatest returner in the game. And it all means nothing if Hester isn't being utilized as effectively as possible.
How to do that? Obviously, there is no perfect answer, but it begins, as Hester patiently explained, with the ball in his hands. Not every team is going to be as bad as the Vikings at stopping him, of course. On the big punt return, the Vikings' Chris Kluwe tried to pin Hester to the sideline, but his teammates did not cooperate on the tackling end and the Bears, particularly Rashied Davis and Brian Iwuh, contributed with some nice blocks.
However it's playing out, the difference between Hester now and at the beginning of the season, even in his body language, is striking and everyone is thinking the same thing again when he drops back.
"That's definitely my mindset right now and his too," Smith said. "You can feel now that every time he goes back there he is thinking about going the distance. He's one touchdown away from being the all-time career TD leader. But as much as anything, it's just another opportunity to help the team win. That's what he's trying to do."
If Hester was ever close to denying his true role, it sounds like he's past that.
"I would say at one point I felt like I had the return thing mastered, and I wanted to really focus on receiver," he said. "Now that I feel a little more confident at receiver, I can focus back on returner as well and make it 50-50 even."
It may on occasion be 50-50, but catching the ball will never create the buzz Hester generates when he camps under a kick and turns it upfield.
"He's not getting better," Israel Idonije said. "He's THE best returner in football. He's doing what he's always done. If they kick the ball to him, he's going to make them pay."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.