Chris Kluwe has a figurine at his home that was commissioned by a friend. It's not of Kluwe in punting form. It's of Kluwe looking helpless and awkwardly flopping to the ground. And he isn't even alone in this work of art.
"It's a beautiful figurine," Kluwe said. "It's Devin Hester running past me and me diving to try to stop him … and missing. I'm hoping not to add another one this year."
It's not some cheap bobblehead type of figurine. Andy Reiner, guitarist in Kluwe's band Tripping Icarus, commissioned the figurine for artist and sports aficionado Todd McFarlane, a noted comic book artist and owner of McFarlane Toys. McFarlane made a name for himself as an artist working on such classic comics as The Amazing Spiderman and Batman, but has been noteworthy in the sports world in a couple of other respects. He used to be a part owner of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers and has made news by paying big money to buy baseballs of historic significance, including both the record-setting home runs by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
Reiner did it as a joke, but clearly he went to the right guy in McFarlane. While he doesn't like to remember the moment the spurred that figurine to be cast, Kluwe said it is of the highest quality.
"It's down to the very last detail," Kluwe said. "It even has the NFL logo on the pants. It's really cool."
The figurine depicts Kluwe helplessly trying to slow down a full-speed Hester returning a punt for a touchdown. While Kluwe is far from alone – Hester has 15 regular-season returns for touchdowns as well as bringing back the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl for a score – in being victimized by Hester, he has more punt return TDs (three) against the Vikings than any other team.
While the Vikings aren't unique in getting burned by Hester, as they prepare for the Bears on Sunday, there is some overtime being put in on kick and punt-return coverage because Hester is such a huge threat.
"It's not just us," long snapper Cullen Loeffler said. "He's given a lot of teams problems in the past and in the present. It's definitely one of those weeks that you have to prepare a little harder. I don't think we change what we're doing so much as it is that we spend more time drilling in the fundamentals of maintaining your lanes and making sure you don't leave gaps for him to get through. I don't think we're just going to punt every ball out of bounds, but we're spending more time than usual working on our coverage."
Hester's touchdowns have always seemed to come at critical junctures of games, whether it's to salt away a game in the fourth quarter or to break a tie or to bring the Bears back from a deficit. While he hasn't brought a kickoff back for a score against the Vikings, he has had several long returns, which has Ryan Longwell concerned about how deep and where to kick the football, because there may be more pressure on the kick coverage team because of the implications of a back-breaking kickoff return.
"There are few things that can swing momentum in a game much more that scoring and then kicking off and having it returned for a touchdown," Longwell said. "He is such a dangerous returner on both kicks and punts and he has a penchant for making the big play. We still go about our business as usual, but you have to be aware of the things he is capable of doing. He's won them a lot of games with his returns. They may not all go for touchdowns, but a big return can almost negate the momentum you got by scoring and kicking to him."
When Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Vikings in 2007, the Vikings changed how they approached dealing with Hester. The team had been plagued by long returns in 2008 (at one point averaging more than 19 yards per return) and, with Hester in mind, they came up with a plan – sacrifice length on punts for either more height or to punt directionally.
"I think our games with Hester were the start of the evolution of our punting game," Loeffler said. "Before that, we would just try to bomb punts as far as we could. With a guy like Hester, you don't want to give him a 10-yard running start on a 55-yard punt. That's when he hurts you. We incorporated directional punting after that and have been successful. That's why I think we've stuck with that approach."
Teams have apparently copied the Vikings' strategy. Through five games this season, opponents have punted 23 times. Of those, only six of them have been returned. Hester is averaging more than 20 yards per return, but he is only getting about one opportunity per game to return punts and clearly is making the most of it.
While teams have avoided him in the punting game, they have just as many issues with kickoffs. Longwell said other teams have taken the approach with Hester that they have taken with Percy Harvin, doing everything in the power to prevent the potential for a return-for-touchdown.
"You've seen what some teams have done in the past with guys like Hester and Percy," Longwell said. "They will squib kick or pooch the ball to about the 30-yard line. They've been willing to let our offense get the ball on the 35- or 40-yard line just to make sure Percy didn't take it all the way for a touchdown. That isn't the way we've done it, but you have to have a plan in place when you're dealing with somebody like Hester. If you just kick it down the middle of the field and give him room to make a decision on where and when to cut, he has the potential to break a long one every time he touches the ball. You don't necessarily change everything you do, but you have to be aware of that possibility."
While none of the specialists would divulge any of the plans for dealing with Hester, it would appear their focus is more on sound coverage than simply avoiding him all together at the expense of punting yards. Hester poses as big a challenge to the return game as the Vikings will face all season, but it's a challenge they seem willing to accept – even though he has burned them three times before, including a TD when the teams met at TCF Bank Stadium in December.
"We've got a game plan going into the game," Kluwe said. "Obviously, he is one of the more dangerous returners in the game. He can return one (for a touchdown) pretty much any time. We're confident in our game plan. We just have to go out and execute it and limit him to not hurting our team."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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