History not working in Hester's favor
Devin Hester scored a record six return TDs in 2006, but the odds are against him sustaining such an electrifying level throughout his career, writes Jeffri Chadiha.
The real question, however, isn't whether Hester can make a significant contribution on that side of the football. It's whether he'll still be able to produce those breathtaking returns that made him a Pro Bowler during his rookie season in the NFL. After all, it's hard enough to be an electrifying return man in this league. To do it year after year, well, that's proven to be fairly difficult for most players.
This isn't to knock Hester, who scored an NFL-record six return touchdowns in 2006. It's just a fact. Returning kicks takes guts and guile, and recent history really hasn't been very kind to players who make their names with that specialty. In today's NFL, anything can hamper a return man's dominance, whether it's the loss of a couple key blockers, the departure of a special-teams coach, or in the case of Hester, outright fear by opponents.
"The opportunities for me probably aren't going to be what they were last season because teams know me now," Hester says. "It's tough for good returners because you can go from having 30 to 40 returns one season to 15 or 20 the next. That's a big part of why guys don't keep putting up the same numbers."
Hester says the Bears will slowly work him into the offense, but he should be mindful of how other star returners handled that transition. If you want examples, let's point to the most obvious: Dante Hall. The St. Louis Rams recently acquired him in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, and you'd be hard pressed to find a returner with a stronger reputation in the league. The man was so dominant during the 2003 season -- when he scored on a return in four consecutive games -- that he received consideration for league MVP honors. Hall was doing Letterman, for God's sake, and his nickname, "X Factor," was a testament to how immediately and substantially he could impact a game.
But as good as Hall was then, there's a reason why Kansas City felt comfortable dealing him to St. Louis for a fifth-round pick. The Chiefs used Hall more as a receiver over the last four years, and though he caught 125 passes during that time, he wasn't much of a difference maker. What's more, that added duty ultimately affected his return skills. After averaging a league-high 16.3 yards per punt return in 2003, Hall averaged just 6.6 in 2005 and 8.9 in 2006. His new head coach, Scott Linehan, said to local reporters that having Hall focus solely on returns again "will enhance [Hall's] ability to get back to where he was."
The second example of a kick returner gone south is Desmond Howard. Playing offense wasn't really his problem because he was never much used as a wide receiver in the first place. It was switching teams that ultimately did him in. Howard went from being the Super Bowl MVP with the Green Bay Packers in 1996 to being just another overpaid, overhyped trophy on Al Davis' roster in Oakland a year later. The Raiders dumped him after two years and he managed to generate only one more impressive season -- a Pro Bowl year in Detroit in 2001 -- before retirement.
Those are just two noteworthy examples for this argument, but I could easily list countless others. Some players, like Carolina's Steve Smith and Baltimore's Derrick Mason, transformed themselves into go-to wide receivers. Others, like New Orleans Saints return man Michael Lewis or Detroit's Eddie Drummond, were just nice stories for a year or two. There are a select few who have managed to generate eye-popping numbers year after year -- Buffalo's Terrence McGee, a cornerback who has made to two trips to the Pro Bowl as a returner, comes to mind -- but even they will fall off eventually.
As for a guy like Hester, it will be interesting to see what affects his productivity in the coming years. He'll certainly have to deal with more directional kicks, better schemes by opponents who will have had a full year to prepare for him and the fact that Chicago already is experimenting with safety Danieal Manning on kick returns.
"I started seeing a lot of people kicking away from me at the end of last season," Hester says. "A lot of angle kicks and pooch kicks, stuff like that. As a return man, you want to touch the ball but I'm also aware of how teams will play me."
There's also this reality: Hester had a season for the ages. Waiting for him to terrorize opponents in his second year is like waiting for LaDainian Tomlinson to score 31 touchdowns again. It's a rare occurrence and one that we should feel privileged to have witnessed.
Still, you can also see what Hester's success has done to the league. There's no way his impact didn't factor into the Miami Dolphins' decision to use the ninth overall selection in this year's draft on Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr., whose explosive return ability eclipsed the fact that he's an unpolished receiver at this stage of his career. There's a good chance that move will give the Dolphins the same type of jolt Hester provided Chicago in 2006. However, the odds of Ginn providing that type of excitement over the course of his career are fairly slim.
Sooner or later, even the best returners become mortal. It's just the reality of working a job that requires a player to hurl his body through waves of men who are basically trying to knock him through the turf. That's why I'm hoping Hester really makes a splash with his new opportunity on offense. If history tells us anything, it's that it will be pretty hard for him to keep thrilling us with his play on special teams.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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