The Monsters of the Midway have always been known for their punishing defense, from Doug Atkins to Richard Dent and Dick Butkus to Brian Urlacher. The team that hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 1985 was arguably the best in NFL history, and as you'd expect, they were led by one of the most suffocating defenses – the legendary 46 – the league has ever seen. Coming off of two consecutive NFC North titles and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI, this version of the Bears is once again centered around a commitment to tough defense thanks in large part to head coach Lovie Smith and his Cover 2 scheme.
But after Monday's announcement, Urlacher & Company may have to play second fiddle to the other side of the ball.
Devin Hester, a rookie cornerback in 2006 who set the pigskin world afire in the return game, will be moved from defense to offense immediately.
A second-round draft choice out of Miami last year, Hester set an NFL record by scoring six times on returns and instantly made a name for himself as perhaps the most exciting player in the league. Hester took back three punts, two kickoffs, and one missed field goal for touchdowns, and he also became the first player ever to return the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl for a TD with his 92-yard bolt of lightning against the Colts at Dolphin Stadium. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and was the only rookie named All-Pro.
When asked why he decided to make the move, Smith did little more than state the obvious.
"I think Devin Hester is one of the most exciting players in the NFL with his hands on the football," Smith told ChicagoBears.com.
Smith did not tip his hand as to exactly how Hester will be used on offense, maintaining that the team has several options.
"There are a lot of different ways we can go," he said. "You can make a case for him being a slot receiver. You can make a case for him being a single receiver when we go to our two-tight end, two-running back packages. You can make a case for him from the running back position. He's an offensive weapon right now. That's the only limit we put on him."
With quarterback Rex Grossman finally in the starting lineup for all 16 games, the Bears improved on offense from 29th in 2005 to 15th in 2006. One of the more balanced around, they were 15th in rushing at 119.9 yards per game and 14th in passing at 205.1 yards per game. Chicago was actually tied for second in the league in scoring with 26.7 points per game, but that number is slightly exaggerated primarily because Hester racked up 36 points all by himself on special teams.
More experience for Grossman and a commitment to Cedric Benson on the ground could make this offense even better in 2007, but the addition of Hester brings an element that has been lacking for quite some time: the threat of the big play.
Nevertheless, many questions still remain.
First of all, how exactly will he be used?
Remember that Hester played both defense and offense at Miami, but he still chose to enter the NFL Draft as a cornerback. It has been speculated that he had trouble picking up the nuances of the playbook in college, and if that's true, those problems will only be exacerbated on the pro level. Having him catch a pass as a slot receiver on one play and then run a sweep as a running back the next sounds great in theory, but Hester has proven to be at his best in the controlled chaos of special teams, not on a drawn-up play with specific assignments. He lined up on offense for a grand total of one snap last year – a quick slant pass from Grossman that fell incomplete – and didn't exactly look comfortable.
On top of that and perhaps most important, how will Hester react to the switch?
It's no secret that he idolized Deion Sanders his entire life and grew up wanting to be both a dangerous return man and a dominant cornerback. Sanders played a little bit of offense and certainly made a splash returning punts and kickoffs earlier in his career, but he is going to the Hall of Fame one day because he was one of the best cover corners who ever lived. Hester saw some time in the secondary late last season when first Nathan Vasher and then Charles Tillman were nicked up, but he did not perform well and was absolutely abused by Torry Holt of the Rams in Week 14 and Reggie Wayne of the Colts in the Pro Bowl. He will never be the defensive back Sanders was, but is he already willing to accept that?
Hester said all the right things about the decision on Monday and sounded willing to do whatever it takes to win football games.
"It's going to be a great experience," Hester said. "I'm just going to go over there and try to give a little spark to the offense. There will be more opportunities to make big plays, and I think it's a great idea."
Simplistically, this makes all the sense in the world. Hester possesses a rare combination of shake-and-bake and natural instincts in the open field, so find as many ways as possible to get him the football. Even when only used as a decoy, the defense will have to account for No. 23 on every play when he's out there.
But this didn't work at Miami, so it's possible Hester and offense is just an oil-and-water situation.
|John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and Editor in Chief of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.|