I was among the reporters who sat with Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith earlier this month at the NFL owners meeting. During my drop-in, the conversation centered on the Bears' offensive line and receivers. More than anything, I walked away surprised that after four years, the Bears are still searching for how to maximize and ration Devin Hester's playing time.
As you know, Hester resurrected himself as the most feared return man in the game last season after two quiet years devoted mostly to playing receiver. On the flip side, his per-game average for receptions dropped from 4.3 in 2009 to 2.5. His yardage average dropped almost 30 yards per game, from 58 to 29.
That dip in production came even as Hester played on 66 percent of the Bears' snaps, the second-highest total among the team's receivers, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. Unofficially, the Bears targeted Hester on only 68 of the 646 total plays he was on the field for.
That's the pivot point Smith said he hopes to address this offseason. He didn't put it in so many words, but if I had to read the tea leaves, it would go something like this: More targets, less plays.
"I would like to see us find a way to get him the ball more maybe in certain situations," Smith said. "That's probably what we're looking at more than just reps, more what we're doing with him on his reps out there. So to take away some of his reps and get him involved in the ones where he's out there, probably that more than anything."
Hopefully for Hester and the Bears, that shift will be the final stroke of the yo-yo that has defined his past few seasons. I, for one, would have no problem with Hester seeing fewer offensive snaps in 2011. Rare is the player who can maintain elite status in one aspect of the game while playing full-time in another. Prioritizing the return game makes all the sense in the world for him, especially if the Bears can follow through on Smith's hope to acquire a big receiver to complement the current group. Using Hester as a full-time returner and part-time receiver has always seemed the most prudent road to me.
At the beginning of this experiment, the Bears acknowledged no correlation between Hester's playing time on offense and his success as a returner. I asked Smith if he now believes there is one.
"You can always make an argument for that," he said. "I just don't know."
Ultimately, Smith said, "Devin really helped us a lot offensively" last season, even if it came through field position and/or touchdowns gained from his returns.
"Whether it's special teams, whether it's offense, that shouldn't be a major part of the discussion," Smith added.
I'm in total agreement. Let's hope we're not having the same discussion next season.
Related: Corporate cousin Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com suggests it's time for Hester to earn his keep as a No. 1 receiver.