The year was 2006, and a young cornerback by the name of Devin Hester was about to embark on a journey. Picked by the Chicago Bears in the second round, Hester was about to ignite a fan base. The words electric was used for the cornerback turned wide receiver/punt returner, though his selection would be a widely criticized move at a time when the Bears were still in desperate need of offensive weapons.
However Hester would leave his mark in the league instantly, returning a punt in his debut as a Bear. In fact Hester would have six touchdown returns in his first 13 games. Hester was a pinnacle reason the Bears were able to reach their first Super Bowl appearance since 1985. On the opening kickoff Hester would go all the way for the fastest lead in Super Bowl history (recently broken by Seattle), stunning the Indianapolis Colts.
In 2007 Chicago embarked on an experiment that would ultimately fail to work out. Lovie Smith decided to install Devin Hester in the offense. For a few years Hester would play decently well. In 2009 Hester became the Bears number-one wide receiver; at the same time, the general manager traded two first round picks to bring in Jay Cutler.
During that season, Hester caught 57 receptions for 757 yards. However, this would mark the beginning of his decline. Hester struggled with simple things that marked the difference between marginal and good (not even great) receivers. Hester continually had issues running routes and had incredibly inconsistent hands.
His great speed was an incredible asset, but he was ultimately incomplete as a receiver. These issues would eventually wear on fans and Cutler. Cutler quickly lost chemistry and confidence with Hester, leading to him being an afterthought in the passing game. Hester would begin to decline in total yards and touchdowns over the next two seasons.
After the 2012 season, Jerry Angelo was replaced by current general manager Phil Emery. Hester had already been on the decline for two years in terms of both receiving and return ability, prompting new offensive coordinator Mike Tice to install what he called the “Hester package” — basically certain offensive plays that involved the return man (mostly as a decoy), demoting him to the fourth wide receiver on the depth chart. He would finish the season with 242 yards on 23 receptions. Mike Tice was fired after his first season after failing to put together a capable offense, as was Lovie Smith (the guy who took a chance on Hester to begin with). Hester contemplated retirement shortly after the announcement, but would continue into his final year of his contract.
Marc Trestman did not see the same potential as Lovie in terms of receiving ability, a point justified by his declining production. Hester was put strictly on return duty, and saw his greatest return year in terms of total yards from kickoffs; however, it was simultaneously his worst for punt returns. Hester would net a career high of 1,442 yards on kick returns, and a career low of just 18 yards from punt returns.
Without a role on offense, his value dwindled and his cap hit prompted what has followed over the last few days. On March 6, Hester alluded to the possibility that the Bears would part ways with him on NFL Network. The 2013 season would be his last in Chicago, as Trestman and Emery have decided he just doesn’t fit what they are trying to do.
Hester’s days as a Chicago Bear have come to an end. It’s difficult to keep a player just to return kicks, especially at Devin Hester’s cost, without adding depth to another part of the team. A rookie like Michael Ford can return kicks and provide depth at the running back position.
If Hester could have turned into that deep threat Lovie had hoped for, his value would make sense; otherwise it was just time to move on. In his announcement on the NFL Network, Hester seemed genuinely upset about his time in Chicago coming to an end. To some degree, Chicago fans should be upset as well.
It’s sometimes hard to remember what made Hester so incredible, but it was a weird feeling watching a punt returner just get you excited about what he was capable of doing. As a fan, Hester should be remembered for all the incredible moments that he brought to the Bears. As an organization, the Bears had to move on. For all of Hester’s past greatness, nostalgia doesn’t win championships.