There aren't many people in the world who can relate to what Chicago Bears wide receiver and return specialist Devin Hester is going through these days, but former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard is one of them.
Selected No. 4 overall in the 1992 NFL Draft by the Redskins after an All-American career at Michigan, Howard only lasted three seasons in Washington. The 5-10, 185-pounder simply didn't have what it took to get open consistently as a wideout, catching just 66 passes for 1,033 yards and five touchdowns in 48 games. And despite his obvious talent as a punt- and kick-return man in college, he brought back a grand total of 10 punts and 41 kickoffs in our nation's capital – and his return averages of 10.9 yards and 20.2 yards, respectively, were pedestrian at best.
But just two years after his unceremonious exit from the District of Columbia, Howard took the national stage by storm in Super Bowl XXXI. In the Packers' 35-21 victory over the Patriots, he set a Super Sunday record with 90 yards on punt returns, tied another record with 244 all-purpose yards, and electrified the Superdome crowd with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown – another record. He was named the game's MVP, becoming the only player in Big Game history to win the award based solely on special-teams performance.
Howard reeled in a total of just 57 passes for 564 yards and two TDs as a reserve receiver for Jacksonville, Green Bay, Oakland, and Detroit after flaming out with the Redskins, but he found a home as a return specialist. At one point or another over the course of an 11-year career, he led the league in punt-return attempts, punt-return yards, punt-return touchdowns, long punt return, and kickoff-return attempts. He is tied for third most in NFL history with eight career punt return scores.
Howards admits that becoming an offensive playmaker on Sunday was tougher than he ever imagined after toying with defensive backs on Saturdays with the Wolverines, which is something Hester is having to learn on the fly with the Bears.
"There is so much more to learn at the wide receiver position in the NFL," said Howard in an exclusive interview with Bear Report. "I was faster and quicker than everyone when I was at Michigan, but everybody's fast and quick once you get in the league."
Hester set the football world ablaze as a second-round draft pick out of Miami in 2006, scoring three times off punts and twice off kickoffs – he also returned a missed field goal 108 yards for another touchdown. If that wasn't enough, the gifted rookie became the first player in Super Bowl history to bring back the opening kickoff for a TD. Since the former Hurricane didn't look to be much of a player as a cornerback, and he was obviously a miracle worker with the ball in his hands, the Bears moved him to receiver before the 2007 season.
He continued his wizardry on special teams in his second campaign, taking back four more punts for scores in addition to a pair of kickoffs. The entire league was forced to pooch punt and squib kick as much as possible in order to take away Hester's ability to change the score in the blink of an eye, giving Chicago a field-position advantage practically never seen before. As a wideout, he caught 20 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns, but he was still quite rough around the edges and sometimes didn't even know where to line up when breaking the huddle.
2008 was supposed to be Hester's breakout season on offense, as head coach Lovie Smith professed to anyone and everyone that his prized possession had the ability to be a No. 1 receiver sooner than later. And while he did make tremendous progress, recording 51 receptions for a team-leading 665 yards and three TDs, his increased reps at wideout – coincidentally or not – led to a stunning drop-off in his effectiveness on special teams. The two-time All-Pro averaged just 6.2 yards on 32 punt returns and only 21.9 yards on 31 kickoff returns, and he didn't hit paydirt once.
WR Devin Hester
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Bears fans were shocked to see No. 23 look, well, ordinary in the return game, but Howard wasn't so surprised.
"I don't see how he could have kept up a pace like that," Howard said. "Look, scoring off returns is hard. It's only natural that you're going to come back to reality to some degree. Expecting him to keep up that kind of pace scoring touchdowns simply isn't possible. And it happens to the best of them."
The Bears finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs, and while it would be unfair to lay too much of the blame at Hester's feet, there is no doubt that Chicago's quick-strike ability on special teams took a hit and, therefore, made things much more difficult on both the offense and defense.
So the question becomes this: What do the Monsters of the Midway do with Hester going forward?
Asking him to play 40 or 50 snaps on offense as a receiver in addition to handling both punt and kick returns is obviously irresponsible, even for an athlete as naturally brilliant as Hester. Perhaps removing him from the offensive game plan entirely wouldn't be a bad idea, as he could then concentrate solely on special teams and possibly recapture the magic he discovered his first two years in the league. On the other hand, since the Bears are in desperate need of better play at both receiver positions, maybe taking him off special teams for good and seeing if he can become the primary target Smith believes he can be is the way to go.
One thing is for sure: Expecting him to be a 1,000-yard receiver and a Pro-Bowl return man all rolled into one is foolish.
"I could see a starting corner or safety pull it off because they don't do nearly as much running," said Howard. "For a receiver, it's too hard to stay fresh the whole game. You can be an elite receiver. You can be an elite returner. But both? I don't know about that. I know I couldn't do it."
Sorry, Bears fans. Even Superman was no match for kryptonite.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.