In an effort to fast track Devin Hester's development as a wide receiver this season, the Bears will be more judicious in their use of his considerable return abilities.
That doesn't mean Hester will be eased out of the job at which he may already be the best in NFL history. Not by a long shot. But Hester will probably not be asked to return every kickoff and punt in 2008.
Hester's 15.5-yard punt-return average was second in the NFL last season, and his 42 chances were tied for third most in the league even though many teams refused to allow him to touch the ball. He was fifth in the NFC with 43 kickoff returns but averaged just 21.7 yards, as teams routinely kicked high and short to curtail his returns or keep the ball out of his hands entirely. In his second NFL season, Hester scored four touchdowns on punt returns and two more on kickoff returns.
He had five kick-return touchdowns as a rookie, plus a 108-yard TD return of a missed field goal and another kickoff-return TD in Super Bowl XLI.
But with the free-agent loss of No. 1 receiver Bernard Berrian and the release of No. 2 Muhsin Muhammad, the Bears need Hester to make some strides as an offensive player over last season, when he showed flashes but still looked rough around the edges while catching 20 passes for 299 yards.
"He will still be our returner," head coach Lovie Smith said, "and from there we'll just try to bring him along as a receiver. He can handle them both. I know it's hard, and it's been a long time since anyone has been able to do [punt and kickoff returns] full-time and be a full-time receiver, too. I think you make those decisions as they come.
"If we're in a game and we need a play and they're kicking the ball off to us, there is a good chance you are going to see him back there. If they're punting the ball to us and we need a big play, no matter what part of the game, there is a good chance you are going to see him back there."
By most accounts, Hester was the Bears' offensive MVP last season even though he had just nine receptions in the first 12 games. With a dearth of offensive playmakers on the roster, the Bears hope Hester can step up as a No. 2 receiver this year or at least a consistent No. 3.
"I think Devin Hester can be pretty much what he wants to be wherever we play him," Smith said. "Can he be a three-down receiver? Definitely so."
NEWS & NOTESA disappointing 7-9 record in 2007 didn't dissuade the NFL's schedule-makers from featuring the Bears prominently in prime time throughout the 2008 season.
Head coach Lovie Smith
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
The NFC North cellar dwellers are slated for five night games, including three at Soldier Field. Their other 11 games are all scheduled to start at noon Chicago time. The Bears are scheduled to play night games in three of four weeks near the end of the season, between Nov. 30 and Dec. 22.
The Bears' previously announced season opener on Sunday night, Sept. 7, against the Colts will be the first regular-season game at Indianapolis' new Lucas Oil Stadium. That will be followed by prime-time appearances at home on Sunday night, Sept. 28, against the Eagles; Thursday night, Dec. 11, against the Saints; and on Monday night, Dec. 22, against the Packers. The Bears play the Vikings at Minnesota on Sunday night, Nov. 30.
The Monday night home game is a rarity in Chicago. Over the past 12 seasons, just one of their 10 Monday night games has been played at Soldier Field.
"We are excited to have five prime-time appearances," Smith said. "Most important, three of those games will be at home in front of our fans. Our national games have been on the road the past few seasons. This will be a showcase year for the great home-field advantage we have in Chicago."
Not so advantageous for the Bears is an early schedule that has them playing four of their first six games on the road. They also play three straight games on the road in the second half of November, but enjoy three straight home games on two separate occasions.
Smith leaves little doubt what side of the ball the Bears will be looking to improve on draft weekend.
"You can start with offense," he said. "We have to get our quarterback position settled. It will be a good competition between Rex (Grossman) and Kyle (Orton). We need another quarterback on our roster. We lost two (starting) offensive linemen, veteran players (OT Fred Miller and G Ruben Brown). We need to replace them. Lost our No. 1 receiver (Berrian to free agency). So you can start on the offensive side of the ball. We have a few holes, but we can replace them."
The Bears used the fourth-overall pick in the 2005 draft on RB Cedric Benson, but he hasn't come close to returning value.
In three seasons, Benson has just five runs longer than 21 yards. Last season he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, and he's scored a total of 10 touchdowns. He's also been injury prone after being a four-year workhorse at Texas, where he carried the ball 1,112 times and was never seriously hurt.
The Bears are expected to draft competition for Benson, and he will have to win the starting job in training camp. If not, it may be his last season in Chicago.
"Ced is a first-round pick, and there are expectations you can't get away from," Smith said. "You are going to get a stage, and then you need to produce. That is where he is. It's as simple as that. Cedric is in a position now where it is an important year for him, and he needs to take a step. He will be the first one to tell you it's time now. When you come in as a rookie, okay. But after that, you have to step up. When you get a chance to play, you have to elevate your game."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"Did I think about cutting him? No. We're not to that point. As a football team, we didn't play as well as we needed to. I don't think you can blame a running back. But this is critical year." – Head coach Lovie Smith on RB Cedric Benson, whose 3.4-yard average per carry last season was the second worst among NFL running backs with 500 or more rushing yards.