Money Matters in the Hester Mess

Devin Hester admitted that his best role may be as a part-time offensive weapon and full-time return man. While that makes a lot of sense, the Chicago Bears are already paying him like a No. 1 receiver.

"I know what I'm best at," Devin Hester said last week on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Radio-1000. "The return game is my bread and butter, so if I had to cut back on my receiving and go back to returning, that's something I would love to do."

The problem is that the Bears are paying Hester as a starting receiver – four years, at least $30 million – not a kick returner who plays a little wideout. Hester's already been paid $15 million in guaranteed money from his 2008 contract extension, in addition to a $5 million roster bonus last season.

In 2006 and '07, Hester scored 11 regular-season touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns and added another kickoff-return score in Super Bowl XLI. But he hasn't scored a touchdown on a punt or kickoff return since Dec. 30, 2007. There's no guarantee that it would even help the Bears to have Hester return kickoffs, especially based on his lousy punt returning the past two seasons. His 7.8-yard punt-return average in 2009 was 19th in the NFL. His 6.2-yard average in 2008 was 23rd best.

WR Devin Hester
AP Images: Marcio Jose Sanchez

In 2008, Danieal Manning took over Hester's kickoff-return duties midway through the season and led the NFL with a 29.7-yard average. Hester averaged just 21.9 yards before losing the job.

This past season, rookie Johnny Knox averaged 29.0 yards on kickoff returns, just one-tenth of a yard off the NFL lead, and he was a late addition to the Pro Bowl. Manning averaged a very respectable 26.6 yards.

So if Hester really wants to help the Bears, he should focus on continuing to evolve as a receiver, where there's still lots of room for improvement after a decent 54-catch, 682-yard season. There's even more room for improvement in his punt returns, where he's become way too much of an east-west dancer seeking the sidelines than a north-south home-run threat.

The seems to be a lot of concern regarding the potential for head-butting between quarterback Jay Cutler and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

But there is also a strong likelihood that the Cutler-Martz collaboration will produce positive results. While both are known to have strong convictions and opinions, sometimes to the point of being stubborn, they are both smart enough to realize that they provide each other with the best chance for success.

Cutler is by far the best quarterback Martz has had to work with since his days with Kurt Warner in St. Louis. And without getting into a Ron Turner-Mike Martz debate, Martz's affinity for, and production in, the passing game can only help Cutler.

Martz, in his role as an analyst with NFL Network, was critical of Cutler's demeanor with the media following the Bears' 2009 season-opening loss to the Packers, when he tossed four interceptions.

For the record, this is the quote about Cutler that caused so much commotion in the weeks leading up to Martz's hiring:

"He just doesn't get it," Martz said. "He doesn't understand that he represents a great head coach and the rest of those players on that team. ... somebody needs to talk to him."

Martz said he spoke with Cutler about that when they met in Nashville.

"I addressed that immediately with Jay," Martz said. "The thing I told Jay, and I said this a few days after that show, the thing I felt bad [about] was, I felt like I knew what Jay was. I met him when he was coming out in the draft. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of who he was and the integrity and the dignity that he has and how classy a guy he is, and how he kind of misrepresented himself with that and really that was totally out of frustration for that game.

"He's going to be one of the elite players in this league for a long time, and those are things that he's just going to have to deal with. That was a very difficult situation for him. But [it was] a great experience for him to go through it, and now you've just got to take that deep breath before you go in there. As a former head coach, you go through those things and collect yourself a little bit and then go in there. It just did not demonstrate who he really was, and those are all learning experiences for all of us." ...

Initial indications seem to be that Hester's role in the offense might be scaled back so that he can contribute more as a return specialist.

Martz suggested that Hester might frequently line up in the slot as a third receiver in passing situations.

"I think he's still the best special-teams return guy in the league, period," Martz said of Hester. "We have to be careful about how much we ask him to do on offense. That's really a reason the Bears have won some games, is because of Devin and what he does in the return game. So we'll be very judicious in what we ask him to do offensively. But he'll be very involved, and we'll ask him to do some really dynamic things where we can get him isolated in [favorable] personnel matchups."

Hester averaged 14.1 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 89 punt returns in his first two seasons with the Bears, when he was a part-time cornerback and then a part-time wide receiver. In the past two seasons, when Hester was a full-time wide receiver, he averaged just 6.9 yards on 56 punt returns and failed to score. ...

For the sixth time in seven years former Bears defensive end Richard Dent, the franchise's all-time leading sacker, made it to the finals but not into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The final list of 15 modern-era nominees, including Dent, was pared down to 10 by the 44-member Hall of Fame selection committee Saturday morning at the Super Bowl XLIV media center. Dent made the first cut along with center Dermontti Dawson, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, wide receiver Andre Reed and tight end Shannon Sharpe and the final five of guard Russ Grimm, linebacker Rickey Jackson, defensive tackle John Randle, wide receiver Jerry Rice and running back Emmitt Smith.

Dent spent 11 seasons with the Bears and was the MVP of the 46-10 Super Bowl XX victory over the Patriots. In a 15-year NFL career that included brief stints with the Eagles, Colts and 49ers, Dent finished with 137.5 sacks, including 124.5 with the Bears. Dent, an eighth-round draft pick out of Tennessee State in 1983, had double-digit sacks for five straight seasons from 1984-88 and in six of seven seasons. Dent had 17.5 sacks in 1984 and 17 in the Super Bowl season of '85.

"I felt very comfortable with him. The results of his offense speak for themselves. He had a lot of success in St. Louis, and his offenses made improvements each year in Detroit and San Francisco. I haven't run his system, but I am familiar with it. I'm anxious to start digesting the playbook and getting back on the field." – QB Jay Cutler said after his initial meeting with Mike Martz, before he was hired as the Bears' offensive coordinator.

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