PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Bears' Devin Hester delving into return records Print
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Thursday, 29 November 2007 12:56
NFL Headline News

 CHICAGO (AP) -Go ahead and kick to Devin Hester. If he catches the ball and spies a tiny opening on a field full of swiftly moving bodies, the play could be over in a matter of seconds.
His instincts take over. Hester might cut, juke, hurdle a tackler, wait for a block or reverse fields before his speed kicks in. By then it's too way late to catch him as he takes off like a jet rolling down the runway to reach liftoff.
Or don't kick to him.
Squib it, pooch it, angle it or bounce it and take the chance an up man will fetch the ball on a kickoff and run about 10 yards to midfield. Or maybe the ball will roll out of bounds, travel a short distance or be placed on the 40. Whatever. The Chicago Bears will get better field position, something their erratic offense craves.
That's the dilemma when facing Hester, who in less than two seasons has become one of the great kick returners in NFL history, a player who can have an impact even when he doesn't touch the ball.
``It's amazing. I've never seen anything like it from that position,'' said New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who's in his 15th season. ``He's such a game-changer, and he's not a starter on defense or offense. ... We've seen some dangerous guys in the past, but there's no one - no one - who does what he does and makes it look so effortless.''
At age 25, Hester's resume is bulging. This year, he has returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. In his short but spectacular career, he's scored 10 touchdowns on conventional returns - six by carrying back a punt and four by taking a kickoff the distance.
Add in the 108-yard return of a missed field goal that stunned the Giants last season and he's got 11 returns for scores.
And don't forget the 92-yard TD return on the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl that doesn't count in regular-season stats. And, oh yeah, this season he also caught an 81-yard TD pass, showing why the Bears wisely decided to let him play some offense.
The Denver Broncos kicked to Hester most of the game last week and he burned them for two TDs on a 75-yard punt return and an 88-yard kickoff return, helping rally the Bears to victory.
He showed plenty of style, too. Hester hurdled fallen punter Todd Sauerbrun on the punt return and after he hit the end zone, he was going so fast he ran all the way into the tunnel the Bears use to enter the field.
And once his kickoff return was a sure TD, he emulated his mentor, Deion Sanders, by carrying the ball in one hand and putting his other hand behind his helmet in a high-stepping final few yards to the end zone.
``It's a combination of everything that he has: the vision, the strength and then the first-step quickness and the top-end speed,'' said Bears special teams coach Dave Toub. ``He'll start a return and then he has another gear. People think they have an angle on him and then they don't. They try to and then he's gone.''
There have been many happy returns this season: 18 kickoff returns for TDs, tying the NFL record for a single season set in 1998. And there have been 13 punt returns for scores, nine shy of the record set in 2002.
Hester's 10 combined punt and kickoff returns for TDs are three shy of Brian Mitchell's NFL-record 13. Mitchell got his in 223 games and 1,070 total returns. Hester has played in only 27 regular-season games and has 131 total punt and kickoff returns.
The average length of touchdown for Hester is 84.4 yards.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin wasn't saying what he'll do Sunday at Soldier Field. Oakland did kick to Hester earlier this month and held him to 48 yards on six combined returns while keeping him out of the end zone.
The Lions kicked to him in the first meeting this season and after he posted a franchise record 314 yards on returns, including a TD return of 97 yards on a kickoff, they kicked away from him in the second game.
``We treat every game as if the return team is going to get the ball this week. We're hoping to get our hands on the ball a couple of times and try to go out and make plays,'' Hester said this week.
``Right now we're used to it. We already know what to expect. We know there are going to be some teams out there that aren't going to kick it to us. And the teams that do, we want to make sure we make the best of our opportunity.''
Coughlin got an up-close look at Hester last season. When the Giants tried a 52-yard field goal that missed, Hester caught the ball in the back of the end zone, hesitated for a couple of seconds and then unexpectedly brought it out. He raced down the sideline 108 yards past the lumbering Giants.
``You know if you kick a long field goal you don't have the idea it's going to be in the field of play. You might miss it, but you don't except it's going to be short. You might miss right, you might left, something like that. He certainly makes you think about everything you are going to do,'' Coughlin said.
And if the Giants do kick it away from the Bears' star, it could change field position on a day when rain is forecast.
``I think everybody knows the quality of the return man and he's exceptional. It's just a question of whether you want to take it at the 40 by kicking it out of bounds, or what are you going to do? You got to roll the dice,'' Coughlin said.
Bears special teams Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo doesn't expect Hester to get too much action Sunday, maybe for the rest of the season.
``That'll mean we're probably going to get the ball at the 40 every time, so the offense only has to have a 60-yard drive instead of an 80-yard drive. Or, it's a Devin Hester touchdown,'' he said.
Hester, a second-round pick out of Miami in 2006, also set a Bears club record for kick return TDs, passing Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who had eight.
``I'm not really into breaking records right now,'' he said. ``I'm just trying to finish out my career and when it's over, then I'll look back and see what kind of records I broke.''
If he continues on his present pace, there will be quite a few.
So, would what Devin Hester do? Would he kick the ball to Devin Hester?
``I don't want to answer that question,'' he said with a smile.
 

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