Hester gives offense spark Bears envisioned

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester took off, and in a flash he was in the end zone.

Another breathtaking return? Not this time.

Instead, it was a game-tying 81-yard touchdown reception with less than two minutes left against the Minnesota Vikings last week, just the sort of boost the Chicago Bears envisioned him giving the offense. And it was just the sort of spark he regularly provides on special teams.

"We're all thinking, 'Oh, let's put him on offense a little more. Oh, wait a minute, we don't want to lose him on special teams,"' guard Ruben Brown said.

It's easy to see why the Bears are conflicted.

Hester already has a league-high three touchdown returns after setting an NFL record with six last season. And against the Vikings, he provided a tantalizing taste of what could come on offense.

The Bears were within 31-24 after Muhsin Muhammad caught a 33-yard touchdown pass with 2:36 remaining. The defense held after the Vikings recovered an onside kick, and Chicago took over at the 19 with 1:53 to go.

Hester made a nice move to get by Dwight Smith, caught the ball at the 35 and raced along the right sideline to complete the first touchdown reception of his career. That tied it at 31 and elicited a deafening roar from the crowd.

The good feelings eroded when the Vikings' Ryan Longwell ended the game with a 55-yard field goal, handing the Bears (2-4) their most disappointing regular-season loss in years. On a day when the defense surrendered 444 yards and got run over by Adrian Peterson, Chicago still had a chance to win because of Hester's heroics.

Besides the tying reception, there was an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown. On that one, Hester made an over-the-shoulder-catch along the sideline, reversed toward the middle to pick up his blockers and then went to work. He split two defenders, pulled away from one lunging for his ankle and avoided another on his way to the end zone.

In other words, it was a typical Hester return. The touchdown reception was a new twist.

Hester became the third NFL player and second Bear to return a punt 80 or more yards for a touchdown and catch an 80-plus yard scoring pass in the same game, joining Gale Sayers and the St. Louis Rams' Az-Zahir Hakim.

"The more opportunities you get, the more chances you get to make a play," Hester said. "That's the way I look at it."

He had a different view as a rookie last year.

Hester had bounced from position to position at the University of Miami and was reluctant to move to offense, even though the Bears drafted him thinking he could contribute on either side of the ball. He played mostly on special teams, occasionally in the secondary, but never on the other side. Coach Lovie Smith broached the subject early on, and it became a full-fledged sales pitch after the season.

Hester finally gave in just before offseason workouts, and the Bears have been slowly working him into the rotation. The transition to offense is not easy because receivers have to run precise routes and can't simply rely on speed, although the Bears have kept it simple for him.

"In fairness to him, not giving him too much to start with ... worked well," quarterback Brian Griese said. "He's shown that he can handle a lot of it."

Hester had been used mainly as a decoy on offense the first five games, with just one 3-yard reception. Even so, defenses had to pay attention.

"People have to respect his speed and the playmaking ability that he has," Muhammad said. "I don't think people have seen some of the best things he can do, but obviously, when he's on the field, they know where No. 23 is."

For the Bears, it's a delicate balance. If they use Hester too much on offense, that could limit his play on special teams. Worse, what if he gets injured?

The NFC special teams player of the month in September, Hester leads the league with seven punt returns for 20 or more yards. Against the Vikings, he had four for 108 yards and ran back four kickoffs for 86.

Teams are paying a heavy price when they put the ball in his hands and are sacrificing field position when they don't. That's not a bad strategy considering the Bears' offense is 28th in the league at 287.7 yards per game.

"I kind of figure Devin's good for seven points every time he steps on the field, maybe 14," Brown said. "So you pick your poison: Which way do you want to use him? Do you want to get your seven or 14 on offense? Do you want to get your seven or 14 on special teams? Or do you split it in half?"

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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