Not that Chicago ever needs an excuse to start overflowing with football enthusiasm months before it's appropriate, but given these melancholy times we live in, it's hard to fault our fair metropolis for making the Chicago Bears, merely at the start of voluntary OTA workouts, the biggest story in town. Derrick Rose isn't walking through that door. Marian Hossa is lucky he's still alive. And while summer weather is supposed to serve as our collective usher to bleacher seats and overpriced beer at Wrigley and U.S. Cellular Field, local baseball is again failing to invigorate the blood. We turn our shattered faith to the Bears, and heap upon them the type of infinite optimism that can only survive in late May. This is what our civic sports pride has devolved to.
The Bears give us a lot to be excited about. This was potentially the best Bears team of my lifetime last year up until Jay Cutler's broken thumb obliterated a 7-3 team brimming with promise. They made a picture-perfect offseason trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a big, dynamic playmaker in the passing game who has a preexisting rapport with Cutler dating back to the duo's bygone days in Denver. The Bears also added veteran depth with quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush, acquisitions undeniably spurred on by the way injury replacements Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber III sabotaged the end of last season. The rookie draft class could be fun, too. Yet, as the Bears continue OTA workouts at Halas Hall, much of the conversation isn't centering on any of the new additions. Instead, we're still buzzing about Devin Hester.
In what's becoming an annual minicamp right of passage for the beloved, local headlines were dominated this week by Hester. These were words out of Cutler's mouth:
"Devin Hester is having the best camp of all the receivers"
And like that, a media frenzy would ensue. Cue up Soulja Boy, throw up The U sign. Hester is poised to take over this city once again.
This will be the sixth season of the Bears' grand experiment to make a legitimate wide receiver out of Devin Hester. The first five have not gone so well.
At the beginning, it made sense. Hester was coming off a rookie season in 2006 that him saw take seven kick returns to the house for touchdowns, including a touchdown on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI. The Bears were the employers of football's most dangerous man; it only made sense to try to get the ball in his hands as much as possible. It's not like Hester was ever much of a cornerback. But upon making the positional switch, Hester would struggle through that maiden voyage as a receiver, catching only 20 passes. But in 2008 and 2009, Hester made steady improvement, combining for 108 catches and 1,422 yards. Hardly Pro Bowl numbers, but it was something, at least. Of course, it was during these two seasons that Hester went through a puzzling drought on special teams, failing to take a single return to the end zone. Had the Bears filled the brain of Devin Hester with too much information, inadvertently destroying his preternatural return instincts? It appeared so.
Hester got his swagger back in the third game of 2010 by returning a punt to the end zone against the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. He would total three return touchdowns in each 2010 and 2011. Everything was back to normal. Except, as soon as Hester's return skills came back, the progress he showed at receiver stopped. He regressed in 2010 and 2011, combining for just 66 catches and 844 yards.
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At least outwardly, the Bears have been confident Hester can turn into a bonafide receiver for a long time. Lovie Smith threw out Steve Smith comparisons at the beginning, and that was at the height of Smith's havoc-wreaking, Napoleon Complex days in Carolina. Take this 2008 quote on Hester from Daryl Drake, who still coaches the Bears' receivers.
''I have been around a lot of guys, a lot of really good receivers, and he has a chance to be better than all of them,'' said Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, who has worked with Hines Ward and Roy Williams. ''That is a strong statement, but I really believe that.
''He has as good a pair of hands as anybody. And then his natural ability to run after the catch is just unbelievable. He has not dropped a ball. Not one ball in any of these practices. Not just minicamp -- all of the OTAs."
Cut to the scene of Cutler telling a gaggle of reporters Hester is having the best camp of all the receivers. Stop me if you've heard this one before. Excuse the skepticism, we just don't like being lied to.
Perhaps it was never that malicious, though. These expectations forced upon Hester may have as much to do with his infectious smile as his sublime foot speed. Hester will never be the brightest crayon in the box, but that's OK: the Bears don't pay him to solve algorithms. Hester comes off as one of the most genuine, likable athletes in this town. When he's on his game, not even Rose can cause as many high-fives and primal screams. Hester is easy to root for, a sentiment shared by fans, coaches and players alike. When Cutler talks about Hester's exciting minicamp, its a vote of confidence towards the player more than media bait. The first step to accomplishing something is believing you can do it. Hester certainly has a city behind him, with everyone hoping this is the year he turns into the downfield burner he's always projected as.
Even Marshall is sold. "I've never been around a receiver, never seen a receiver who runs routes like Devin Hester does outside," he said recently. "He has all the skills to be a Pro Bowl receiver, not a punt returner -- we all know what he can do there -- but a Pro Bowl receiver."
Whether it's a careful toeing of the company line or more wishful thinking doesn't really matter at this point. The Bears believe in Devin Hester, and so does Chicago. Now all we need is for the player to finally cash-in on years of support.