So far this season the Bears punt return unit has looked much better than last year. There's still a zero in the TD column, but overall the return men seem to have more room to run. In 2008 Devin Hester looked mortal by not taking any punts back to the house, especially after his first two seasons had us Bears fans spoiled with his ridiculous returns. Did his ability regress last year? Is he starting to find his Mojo again this year?
The thing I love about football is it's truly a team game. You need all 11 men on the field doing their job. As great a returner as Hester looked in his first two years, you have to look at his third phase teammates. Veteran Chicago Bears that had honed their skills as special teams players.
Former Bears Brendon Ayanbadejo (Pro Bowler), Cameron Worrell, and Todd Johnson were key members of the '06 unit. In 2007 you still had Ayanbadejo, but you started to get some turnover with the depth of your team. And the depth of the team are the players that make up the special teams.
Think about the players drafted to the NFL... the elite offensive and defensive players of the college game. You'll never see team draft a stand out gunner or a first team wedge breaker. The majority of the rookies coming in were studs in high school so their coaches probably held them off special teams to preserve their health. Once in college they competed with the other freshmen recruits and the best of the best were then either red-shirted or took on an immediate role offensively or defensively.
The kids that play special teams in college are primarily made up of players that aren't quite good enough to start, so therefor aren't going to get drafted to the NFL. Occasionally you'll get a late bloomer that spent some time on special teams their first couple years in college, but once they bloom, they no longer attend the third phase meetings.
Look at two of the Bears top special teams players. How many times did Garrett Wolfe cover kicks at Northern Illinois? And Adrian Peterson was a record setting running back at Georgia Southern. How many special teams tackles do you think he was in on? These guys probably got their first taste of the special teams on the NFL level, as do most NFL players. It takes time to teach these great athletes the nuances of their new role.
I briefly touched on some special teams stuff last month, but it's such a change for these players, both in terms of technique and in just fully accepting their role. You'd like to think that these players would be happy to be on an NFL roster and do what ever it takes to contribute, but the reality is that if you are used to being a superstar player in high school and a superstar player in college, it takes some getting used to basically being a cog in the machine on the NFL level. Mentally it takes some athletes longer to "get it" than others. And the ones that catch on usually are the ones that thrive in their new roles.
Getting back to this year; Hester has fielded the most punts with a 12.5 average (more than double last years average) and Earl Bennett has returned four with a 15.8 average. While last year was a down year in the return game this year things are looking up. Dave Toub is highly regarded around the league as a top notch special teams coordinator and it took him a little time in getting his guys to perform at a high level again. This year the kick return TD by Johnny Knox has matched the teams total of a year ago, and that is with the new rule limiting the wedge to two players, and Hester did have a punt return TD called back last week. It's just a matter of time til he pops one again.
Hester may never equal the ridiculousness of '06 and '07, but with the core third phase players improving every week, you never know...