As a Bears fan of relatively recent vintage, I can state without qualification that Devin Hester’s kickoff return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl was the absolute highlight of my fandom. Hell, it might have been my best sports moment, period. But as you already know, those famous, once-feared returns have of late been more scarce than Pete Seeger tapes at Tank Johnson’s house. Everyone’s got a theory:
He’s tired from playing offense. I don’t like this one at all. Maybe if the problem were that he was getting caught from behind right before the end zone, or if he was just missing his holes. Actually, he’s just running full speed into the coverage.
He’s gotten fat and happy because of his new contract extension. Yeah, but why has he played so well on offense? Anyway, the contract is full of incentives, so he can’t just kick back and wait for the money to roll in.
He’s not actually doing terribly; fans’ expectations are just too high. We can call this the Lovie Theory. As the coach put it, “The type of career he has had so far, he assumes he is going to score every time he touches the football.” Unfortunately, the stats don’t bear it out. Not only has he not gone the distance, which could plausibly be a question of luck, his averages on punts and kicks are way down–near the bottom of the league, in fact. Who would have thought he’d be looking up in the leader board at Johnnie Lee Higgins and Yamon Figurs?
His rib injury is acting up. Well, he says it isn’t, he hasn’t missed any time since Week 3, and he looks fine on offense, so it can’t be the injury.
The special teams unit is struggling to gel after the loss of Brendon Ayanbadejo. This one I kind of believe, and it seems like Hester does too. As he told the Sun-Times, “It’s new teammates out there. We have to adjust to it. Some of the stuff I did last year, you can’t expect me to do this year.” It’s strange that the Bears gave Hester $40 million, but let Ayanbadejo walk for less than $5 million. For me, that’s the key to the problem.
He’s got a mental block. Well, obviously he has a mental block. Again, in the Sun-Times, he admitted, “It is frustrating because we set a high expectation for ourselves as a return game, and when we’re not doing it, then … I feel like it’s all on me.” All a Bears fan can hope is that, like any other player in a slump, he can bust out of it with one good return. Maybe even a long reception on offense could break the spell.
He can’t concentrate on returns because of his responsibilities on offense. This is a mishmash of two of the other theories, and it’s the one that Rick Morrissey proposes today in the Tribune. As an example, he points to Hester’s fumble against the Lions last week. It’s easy to forget, though, that Hester was a fumbling machine the last two seasons. He coughed the ball up 11 times in 89 punt returns over that span, meaning that he fumbled about once in eight opportunities. Plenty of players (Troy Brown, Rod Woodson, Gayle Sayers) have managed to handle two sets of duties at once, and there’s no reason Hester can’t as well.
He’s lost it. Worst-case scenario, probably not the case, but look at Dante Hall, aka Devin Hester 1.0. From 2002-2005 he had nine returns for touchdowns on punt and kick returns (out of 286 combined opportunities). No one would kick anywhere in his zip code. In the three and a half seasons since then, however, he’s had only five touchdowns in 281 opportunities. He’s still good, but he doesn’t have the same flair. In this analysis, returning kicks is like pitching the ninth inning with a one-run lead; to use Hester’s own words, “either you’ve got it or you don’t.” Does he still have it?