Not-so-happy returns

It's been a while since Devin Hester has made a big play. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester says that we should be patient.

"It's a long season," he says.

That it's OK he had only one ball thrown to him on Sunday.

"Everybody is satisfied," he says.

That maybe he'll get a few more chances this week.

"I'm just trying to help out in any way I can," he says.

I think it's terrific that the Bears receiver is such a team player. I think it is equally terrific that he seems to actually not hate answering these questions anymore, and is thoughtful with his answers.

So why do I want to shake my head every time I see him?

It's not necessarily Sunday that I feel badly about, when Jay Cutler found Hester just once for a 17-yard reception in the first series of the game and not again in 34 pass attempts.

It's not even about last year, when Hester had 757 receiving yards on 57 catches and three touchdowns, or 2008, when he had 51 catches for 665 yards and three touchdowns.

It's the whole thing. It's the fact that one of the most dazzling and talented athletes in the league is now in his fifth season and it feels more and more like the Bears have completely wasted his vast abilities.

It has always been clear where Hester's heart lies.

"I know what I'm best at," he said in February of this year on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 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."

No mystery why he loves it. He was the most dynamic performer in the NFL in 2006, his rookie season, and again in '07, a two-year span in which he combined for 11 regular-season touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns and -- who can forget? -- a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl.

While trying to make him into an elite receiver -- because if he wasn't going to be one of the best, what was the point? -- the Bears switched Hester's focus permanently before the 2008 season and now haven't seen him return a kick for a touchdown since December 2007.

Was he even a returner anymore? He attempted 31 in '08 and seven in '09. On Sunday alone, he had five punt returns for a combined 17 yards and an average of 3.4 yards, including one fair catch and a long of nine yards. (He averaged 15.5 yards per punt return in '07.)

If he still loves it, he sure doesn't look like it.

As he has for much of the past two seasons, Hester looked tentative against the Lions and even eager to get out of bounds.

"I'm just trying to hit a home run again," he said gamely. "It's coming any day. I just have to be patient and just be there when it comes."

As the team's richest receiver by a longshot (his approximately $30 million, four-year deal, signed prior to the '08 season, includes a $15 million guarantee and a $10 million roster bonus based on the performance of a No. 1 receiver), Hester looks as unappreciated as ever.

"If Devin would've gotten open, I would've thrown him the ball," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said Wednesday, when asked why he couldn't find Hester in the Bears' season opener.

Devin Aromashodu has clearly become Cutler's favorite target with five catches against the Lions, along with Greg Olsen. Johnny Knox need only be occasionally in the right place, and he and Hester will be battling it out each week.

"It's going to be game by game who gets the ball depending on what coverage -- if they're rolling strong, if they're rolling weak -- we're going to go with the matchups," Cutler said, recovering nicely. "They were doing some stuff to Devin, putting some guys over the top of him. But Devin's going to have his games. I'm not worried about that. He's going to play really well this week. So I'm excited for him."

Hester, who is so bored apparently that he had his hair cut into a mohawk and is making plans to shave it entirely, said upon watching the film in which he thought he was open a couple times. "But some of the plays aren't designed for me.

"That's the way it goes. You might get one, two balls, and next week you might get 15, 20. That's what I'm hoping for this week [in Dallas], get my hands on the ball a little bit more, try to help out as much as I can."

No doubt, he will get more balls thrown his way and he may even be the leading receiver on occasion. But that wasn't the plan upon removing a player from a role in which he was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.

We'll see what Martz has in store. Meanwhile, the average career of an NFL wide receiver, according to the NFL Players Association, is 2.81 years and Hester's star clock is ticking.

"It's not an offense that says we're going to force the ball to this guy and this guy, and then see if they can stop us," Olsen said. "We have too many good players and too many guys who can run around and catch the ball, so we don't need to force it to anyone."

Hester said he and Cutler are "communicating more than we ever did," which doesn't exactly sound like they were best buddies last season.

For now, he is preaching patience.

"It's a long season," Hester said. "We have, what, 15 more games? Every receiver will get a fair amount of balls, and it's just a matter of time when I'm going to get mine."

Except that a matter of time was not the plan.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.