The Chicago Bears today officially parted ways with kick returner Devin Hester in Urlacher-esque fashion, thanking him for eight seasons through a mass e-mail to the media.
At his peak, Hester was arguably the most dangerous player in the NFL. In his first two years in the league, he scored 11 touchdowns on punt and kick returns, which doesn't include his 108-yard TD on a missed field goal his rookie year or his score on the opening play of Super Bowl XLI. For those two seasons, no player in the NFL was as deadly with the ball in his hands as Hester.
Hester's dominance changed the way NFL teams viewed draft prospects who are "only" kick returners and forced special teams coordinators throughout the league to devise ways to kick away from him. He turned punt plays, viewed by most fans as throwaway formalities, into must-see television.
Then Lovie Smith and Ron Turner had the brilliant idea of turning Hester into a wide receiver, a position he never before played, and things unraveled. As the club's "No. 1 receiver", Hester's return game crumbled. After 13 TDs his first two years, he scored just six in a five-year stretch between 2008-2012. While most returners would hang their hat on such production, for Hester, it was a troubling decline.
Marc Trestman knew what playing 50 snaps a game on offense did to Hester as a returner, which is why he designated him to special-teams-only duties upon taking over as head coach. As a result, Hester finished first in the league in total kick return yards and fifth in average yards per return. He tied Deion Sanders' NFL record for most combined return touchdowns (18) and had his history-breaking TD called back on a holding call in Week 12. He also set a franchise record in Week 2 for return yards in a single contest (249) and in Week 6 broke Glyn Milburn's all-time record for kick return yards (4,634).
Yet Hester, a three-time Pro Bowler and four-time All Pro, is 31 and no longer plays offense or defense. As such, the Bears chose to part ways with the eight-year veteran.
This wasn't a surprising move, one that astute Bears fans can trace back to late last season when the club signed Chris Williams. Williams spent most of 2013 on the New Orleans Saints practice squad after spending all of 2012 in the Canadian Football League. That year, he set a CFL record with six return touchdowns to go along with 1,117 punt return yards and 83 receptions for 1,298 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns.
The Bears snatched up Williams in the final week of the season. Looking back, it was the first step in preparing for Hester's departure. Williams (5-8, 175) will get a shot in training camp this year to take over Hester's role as the club's primary kick returner. He'll likely be challenged by Eric Weems, a Pro Bowl returner in his own right, yet Weems will be 29 by the start of the season and his best return days are behind him.
If Williams can do for the Bears what he did in the CFL, Bears fans will quickly forget about Hester, although the memories will never fade.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is entering his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.