TAMPA--When evaluating the season Devin Hester had, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said expectations needed to be reshaped. Hester's record-setting first two seasons had to be put in perspective with him working as a full-time receiver because, as Angelo pointed out, never has an elite returner doubled as a No. 1 wide receiver.
Deion Sanders is here to say it can be done and Hester is the man to do it.
"He could do it,'' Sanders said in between Super Bowl XLIIII media day sessions Tuesday morning at Raymond James Stadium. ``You get the right personnel to block for him, sure he can. When I returned punts it wasn't that I was so great, it was the 10 guys in front of me were great and they were blocking their butts off. That's what made me who I was as a returner. That's the same as Devin in his previous years.''
Sanders targeted the players Hester had with him on special teams, a group coordinator Dave Toub was forced to remold this past season. Hester lost his kick returning job in mid-November at Green Bay and averaged just 21.9 yards on kickoff returns before yielding to Danieal Manning, who wound up leading the league. Hester remained on punts and never found his groove, finishing with an average of 6.2 yards and a long of 25, the kind of production the Bears used to get from Leon Johnson. Even with a return game that wasn't what it was from 2006-2007 when the Bears were No. 1 in the league in special teams, Toub's personnel was still good enough to rank eighth this past season.
"There's never been a No. 1 receiver and a No. 1 kick returner,'' Angelo said after the season. "If there's never been one, there's probably a reason for that. So I anticipated the potential of Devin's returns to fall off given the fact that we were going to escalate his play time at receiver. We wanted to escalate his play time and that's the course we chose to go down. His returns did suffer. Now, is that to say that's the absolute reason why? I don't know that. Teams got better with their coverages, being there was more of a sense of urgency. I'm sure they did a lot more studying and how to cover with Devin. There are probably other things there too.
"He wasn't the returner he was in the last couple years. We're going to look at that real hard too and make sure we continue to define what his role is because the one thing that we know about Devin and he showed it at receiver is that he's a playmaker, and when you get a playmaker, you want to make sure you get him the ball the best way you can to make as many plays as he can on Sunday."
Toub has said Manning will remain in the role of kickoff returner but the Bears could take some time away from Hester at receiver next season in order to jump-start his game on special teams. Sanders is convinced it's more a function of those around him.
"They had good [special teams personnel] the year they went to the Super Bowl,'' Sanders said. "It wasn't the same caliber. Devin has always said it wasn't him, it was the blocking in front of him and he made some great reads. That wasn't the case this season. I don't think he had the same personnel. Not to say he made all the right decisions, but he did make some good decisions. The personnel had a lot to do with it."
As far as his development as a receiver, all parties seemed pleased with the strides Hester made in the final six weeks or so of the season. He finished with 51 catches for 665 yards (13.0 average) and three touchdowns.
"I think he did great,'' said Sanders, who is still a close mentor to Hester. "Devin is the kind of kid, when he received the new contract he placed pressure on himself to perform. A lot of people think they get a new deal and they can chill. Devin is the direct opposite, `I got a new deal and I want to prove that I am worthy of this deal. I want to prove that I am one of the best in the game.' That's why he was frustrated."