New coach Marc Trestman revealed Monday that it was Hester who suggested that a reduction in responsibilities could help him to once again be the kind of return man who used to pile up weekly honors while heading off to Pro Bowls.
“The conversation, to my recollection, was, ‘It sounds to me like you just want to be a returner, and that’s OK with me. I would like you to be the returner and focus solely on that,’” Trestman said.
The revelation debunks a common belief that Hester was demoted to a return-only role after years of mostly choppy results as a wide receiver.
“I don’t ever remember me telling him that that was the way it’s going to be,” Trestman said. “I remember our conversation being more like, ‘I know that’s what you want to do, and I’m all-in.’ That’s sort of the way I remember it.
“Now, this was six and a half months ago. It was literally the second week I was here, I think. And it just stopped right there. [Special-teams coach] Joe [DeCamillis] started meeting with him, and we started developing a dialogue when we saw each other. It wasn’t complicated at all. It just seemed to happen that way.”
Fast-forward to Sunday at Soldier Field and Hester certainly looked like a hungry and fresh return man. After getting only one kick-return chance against Cincinnati in the season opener, Hester ran wild in his five chances against the Minnesota Vikings.
Also added to the mix was the motivation that came in the form of Cordarrelle Patterson's game-opening kick return for a touchdown that gave the Vikings an early lead.
“As an overall unit, we don’t like people to come in and start off like that on us,” said Hester, who would go on to earn his 13th career special-teams player of the week award. “The next opportunity was on special teams so that was the first option we had was coming back and getting a nice return.”
Without plays on offense to either clutter his mind or wear on his legs, Hester is feeling like a new man.
“It helps out a lot just throughout the week mentally preparing,” Hester said. “I spend more time with the special-teams unit, more time with the coaches, game-planning our opponent and just being around the special-teams players more often now.”
During practice, Hester can often be seen fielding punts and kicks instead of running pass patterns. Even with the reduced responsibilities, though, he’s going to be hard pressed to come anywhere near 249 return yards on a regular basis.
“I wish he could, that’s for sure,” DeCamillis said. “We’re going to try and going to strive to it and hopefully get that done, but you’re not going get those kind of days. Sometimes they will sail them out of the end zone, and I’m sure that was the plan coming in. It worked out well.”
Hester knows the punts out of bounds or the squib kickoffs are likely coming. He only hopes that opponents’ pride or self-confidence kicks in to give him give him more return chances.
“Who knows? This is the NFL; the best of the best,” Hester said when asked if he’s prepared to see fewer chances now. “I don’t think every team will avoid kicking to us. We will come across more teams that will be confident in their special teams and not willing to give up field position [with a] squib kick or bloop kick. We’re used to this situation where we have a great game on the return game and we go three or four games without a return. It’s nothing new.”
After spending the past four seasons as Dallas' special-teams coach, DeCamillis knows the type of concern Hester strikes in opponents.
“I know when we played him the second game of the year it sure looked like he was running hungry to me,” DeCamillis said. “All I can say is that I think he is competitive and we have a group of competitors on our team. I’m just glad to be with them and glad they bailed me out of a bad one right there, that’s for sure.”
That “bad one” is Patterson’s touchdown return, of course, something the Bears could forget with Hester’s day and ultimately the game-winning drive engineered by Jay Cutler.
“I came in here as a Devin Hester fan, and I’ve been watching him for years and always got excited to see what he could do on the field,” Trestman said. “And just to get to know him, it was easy early on to converse with him and to see his love for the game and love for the Bears. So when we put this into practice of just locking him into being a returner, we were excited to see some of that. And a little bit of it happened certainly on Sunday.”