Over the past few months, the Chicago Bears have transformed their receiving corps from one of the NFL's shortest to arguably the tallest. They've reunited the key players from the Denver Broncos' dynamic 2008 offense and they've fended off questions -- including some from their quarterback -- about their offensive line. But to me, the most intriguing thing happening in Chicago at the moment is the development of a mysterious package of plays for receiver/kick returner Devin Hester, the latest in a long line of attempts to harness Hester's Hall of Fame speed and skills for their offense.
General manager Phil Emery hinted at the new approach shortly after the draft. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice and receivers coach Darryl Drake offered some morsels to reporters during last weekend's rookie minicamp, and all that's left now is to see if it actually works.
Part of me wants to roll my eyes and cringe, as we did recently on the blog, as the Bears once again refuse to accept what Hester is and isn't -- at least what he hasn't been yet. They remain unsatisfied with him simply being the best kick returner in NFL history. And another part thinks this attempt could prove to be the most productive balance the Bears have tried yet.
Drake might have best explained the plan last weekend by suggesting the "Hester Package" will limit snaps but elevate targets to make more efficient use of Hester's time on offense.
"The talent has always been there," Drake told reporters. "It's just a matter of not having him play 70 plays and throw to him twice. Play him 15 [plays], let him touch it 13 [times.] In order for him to be effective, we don't need to have him out there playing that many plays. If he's out there, put the ball in his hands. We need to have that package, and Mike Tice -- I promise you -- he's going to do it."
On the surface, it makes sense. Hester's combination of speed and open-field running ability is rare and awfully tempting to expand on. And when you look at the chart, you see what happens when a team doesn't have or utilize the speed to stretch a defense vertically. The 2011 Bears, for instance, had one of the least efficient short passing games in the NFL last season.
But running a full game's worth of pass routes probably takes the edge off Hester's energy in the return game. There is reason to think he could have a similar impact in 15 plays designed to involve him than he could in 70 plays that spread the ball around the field.
That appears to be the starting point for a tweak that appears to have emanated from, or at least endorsed by, Emery himself.
"I want to make sure that we have a special plan for Devin," Emery said last month. "We have the 'Devin Package' -- packages of plays as a receiver. You never know where he's going to line up. I don't want to get too far ahead of that in terms of letting other people know what we're going to do with him, but he will have a package of plays that we feel can bring out his dynamic ability to the forefront and if not only as carrying or catching the ball, but sometimes that's a decoy.
"Devin's speed vertically is something that has to be accounted for. So if that pulls people from coverage, to handle that vertical ball, you've got other people; we've got some awfully big targets to hit."
On the other hand, of course, it's not as easy as it sounds. You better believe that opposing defenses will notice when Hester is on the field, especially now that the Bears have announced they want to get him the ball often in the relatively brief period of time he plays offense. I don't think it will make teams leave, say, Brandon Marshall wide open to account for Hester, but his appearance isn't going to surprise anyone, either.
The "Hester Package" has already conjured comparisons to the "Randy Ratio" that Tice used after taking over the Minnesota Vikings' head coaching job in 2002. As you might recall, a study of the Vikings' 2001 season showed they won every game they targeted receiver Randy Moss on at least 40 percent of their throws. Tice announced he would make that goal a centerpiece of his offense.
The "Randy Ratio" wasn't a schematic adjustment as much as it was Tice's attempt to cajole the notoriously anti-authoritarian receiver to buy in as a team leader. It backfired on a number of fronts, and Tice himself acknowledged over the weekend that it "came back to bite me in the [rear end]."
Turning serious, Tice said: "Devin is going to be on the field. If he's not on the field, then they should fire me."
That final line speaks to the extent the Bears have prioritized Hester's potential contribution. You know the old saying: If at first you don't succeed, try try again.