No matter where the Bears are playing, the buzz in the stands is palpable every time Devin Hester is in the backfield for kickoff and punt returns. You can almost hear the conversations among fans: "Think he can do it? Think he can run this one back for a touchdown?" Even when he was in a slump, fans always held out hope that the magic would return.
Their faith has been rewarded this season, as Hester has regained his title as one of the best return men in the NFL. He leads the NFL in punt return yardage and punt return touchdowns. On Sunday against the Vikings, he took over kick return duties and gained 100 yards after kickoffs, and scored a touchdown as a wide receiver.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King thinks that Hester is the key to the Bears' success:
Very wise use of the dangerous Hester made the Bears' win over Minnesota much easier ... All in all, if Hester can impact the game as a receiver AND kick/punt-returner, the Bears have a chance to win multiple playoff games.
Using Hester wisely is the difficult task for Lovie Smith. In 2007, Hester had 651 punt return yards, putting him in the top 10 seasons in the NFL. He also had 934 kick off return yards, and six returns for touchdowns. At that point, he was focused on being a return man, and only had 20 receptions.
As the Bears tried to ease him into the receiver role, his production as a return man went down. As this season began, Hester handled punts while Danieal Manning and Johnny Knox pitched in on kickoffs, until Sunday, when he handled every return but one. Hester had four receptions and four returns on Sunday. It helped that the defense forced four turnovers, so there weren't as many punts for Hester to return.
Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Martz figured out the right balance, and it paid off with Hester having his best game of the year. If they can continue that juggling act, Hester will lead the Bears to the promised land, and the buzz in the stands will grow to a roar.