We got an e-mail question Thursday evening asking about the production of Devin Hester, who made strides on the field as a wide receiver last season but saw a drop off in his production as a return man, ultimately relinquishing kickoff return duties to Danieal Manning.
"How much more did Hester play as a wide receiver in 2008 vs. 2007? I think the Bears took away from his explosive ability on special teams by taking his focus off of it. He was the most valuable player on the team. Now he's just another guy as a wide receiver and nothing distinguishes him as a returner. David N., Chicago"
That has been a popular question all offseason, and it's a subject we tackled with special teams coordinator Dave Toub at the OTA last week. First, let's take a look at the playing time numbers for Hester over the last two seasons in combination with his statistics:
51 receptions, 665 yards, 13.0 avg., 3 TD
6 rushes, 61 yards, 10.2 avg.
Special teams--121 snaps
31 kickoff returns, 679 yards, 21.9 avg., 51 long
32 punt returns, 14 fair catches, 198 yards, 6.2 avg., 25 long
20 receptions, 288 yards, 15.0 avg., 2 TD
7 rushes, minus-10 yards, minus-1.4 avg.
Special teams--182 snaps
43 kickoff returns, 934 yards, 21.7 avg., 2 TD
42 punt returns, 6 fair catches, 651 yards, 15.5 avg., 4 TD
So, Hester was on the field for a total of 752 plays (offense and special teams) in 2008 after being on the field for a combined total of 408 plays in 2007. One thing that is interesting is Hester's touches per play on offense dropped from one year to the next. Hester touched the ball every 8.37 snaps he was on the field in 2007. That number rose to one touch every 11.07 snaps last season.
What's missing in the equation for the returns and cannot be defined with numbers is the turnover that Hester dealt with on special teams. Toub's units took on a different look in 2008 and many of the new faces were rookies. Missing were Brendon Ayanbadejo, John Gilmore, Rod Wilson, Brandon McGowan and others. Hester basically had the same personnel around him in 2007 as he did during his rookie season of 2006. Take away the blockers and Hester wasn't the same return man. That doesn't explain for Manning's success as a kickoff returner however. He took over full-time duties in Week 11 at Green Bay and wound up leading the league with a 29.7 average. As Toub explains, things were ironed out by mid-November.
"It had nothing to do with Devin being on offense,'' Toub said. "When you go back and look at it, we had some young guys in there early and we didn't get them started. Toward the end of the year, we started cracking it. I've said it a million times now, we were a couple guys away from getting one on multiple occasions. Hey, they're hard to get. Touchdowns are hard to get on special teams. If you get two in a year, you're Pro Bowl considered.
"We just kind of got spoiled for two seasons. That's what happened. He's going to be fine this year.''
The Bears don't have plans to lighten Hester's workload on offense, either. How can they when you consider the depth chart? Hester was on the field for 631 of 1,012 snaps on offense (62.4 percent). He'll probably be more involved in the offense in 2009.
Opponents are scheming to stop Hester each week and he's been a marked man since the middle of his rookie season. If Toub is right and the players around Hester improve, he'll be the same returner the Bears are accustomed to seeing.