When the NFL's all-time leader in punt return touchdowns darted 82-yards on a dazzling return for a score on Nov. 13 against the Detroit Lions, in the midst of the Chicago Bears' five-game winning streak, it appeared certain he was headed for another Pro Bowl appearance. After all, Devin Hester had broken Eric Metcalf's record earlier in the year with a nifty 69-yard return for six points against Carolina and also had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown versus the Vikings.
Fast forward to this week, when Pro Bowl selections were announced. Amazingly, Hester was bypassed by Arizona Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson as the return specialist for the NFC. Hester was seeking his fourth trip to the annual all-star game, following honors in the 2006, 2007 and 2010 seasons.
"Devin is one of the best returners in the game, so it was a little shocking that he made it [only] as an alternate," said teammate Corey Graham, who will be making his first Pro Bowl appearance for his duties on special teams.
RS Devin Hester
As for the reasons he was overlooked: Is it the nagging ankle and leg injuries that have inhibited Hester's return skills the last quarter of the season? Is it the Bears' five-game slide that has featured its share of poor execution in all three phases? Or perhaps, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, Peterson is just the next "big thing"?
What's truly surprising is that the Pro Bowl is largely a popularity contest, where the voting is sometimes governed more by reputation and career statistics than actual performance. One would think that in a year where Hester broke the punt return record, and built on his kick return record, he would have gotten the benefit of the doubt. He's remained remarkably consistent and productive during his six-year career, and at age 29, appears to have a few more seasons of giving NFL special teams coordinators headaches with his unique blend of instincts, vision and quickness.
Peterson, Arizona's first-round pick from LSU, who returns punts but not kickoffs, has been absolutely electric this season. He has returned a league-high four punts for touchdowns. Two came in late-game situations that propelled the Cardinals to victory.
On the flip side, Hester is the only other player in the league with more than one punt return score, plus the one kickoff return for six. Hester has a higher punt-return average – 1.4 yards greater than Peterson's, although Peterson has returned 14 more punts than Hester.
Even more importantly, Hester is a huge part of Chicago's offensive production. The club routinely counts on him to win the field-position battle, and the team's record is staggering when he takes one to the house. While his recent injury woes appear to have affected his decision-making on returns and made him more conservative, Hester is a threat opposing teams must prepare for each week.
Fans can only hope that 2012 brings the Bears' key players, Devin Hester included, good health and motivation to return to form and prove their skeptics wrong – as well as those who voted in a rookie over the greatest return man ever to play the game.
Jeff Curts has written for the Bleacher Report, Examiner.com, NFL Draft Dog and published The Slant...NFL Draft Newsletter. Curts is a graduate of Sports Management Worldwide, having completed the Scout & General Manager course under the direction of former NFL scout and current Sporting News draft expert Russ Lande. Jeff is founder and publisher of the Web site Bears Claws and hosts the program "Bears Claws" on BlogtalkRadio.