LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Devin Hester's status remained a mystery and so did the extent of his rib injury.
After telling a few reporters earlier Thursday he had torn cartilage, the Chicago Bears' record-setting return specialist backtracked and said his ribs are simply bruised. Either way, he hopes to play against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
He remains a game-time decision after missing his second straight practice Thursday, but he seemed relieved that tests earlier in the week did not reveal a more serious problem.
"It's a lot better," Hester said after practice. "It's improved a lot, and I'm feeling a lot better."
Hester was taken from the sideline on a cart during the third quarter of last week's 20-17 loss at Carolina.
Hester said he first felt some pain earlier in the game when he landed on another player while being tackled and aggravated it on a kickoff return following a 45-yard field goal by Carolina's John Kasay. The Bears were leading 17-6 when Hester caught the ball a yard into the end zone and sprinted to the 15, where he felt a "real sharp pain" as he twisted to his left before heading out of bounds at the 23.
Hester was still in motion when Julius Peppers, trying to slow him down, extended his right arm and was seen about a second later clutching the left side of his rib cage. He walked over to the Chicago sideline and was carted away with what he thought was a more serious injury.
Instead, he was "very relieved" by the results of an MRI on Tuesday.
"It wasn't what I expected," he said. "I was expecting something (worse) than what it was. But it came out pretty good."
If he can't play, Danieal Manning will have a bigger role on kickoff returns, with Nathan Vasher returning punts.
"(Vasher) is a solid catcher," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He's not a blazer. He's not going to break a 110-yard return for you like Devin will. But he's going to get you the first down. He's someone who's going to catch the ball ... and get you that first down."
Coach Lovie Smith has said Hester does not need to practice this week in order to play, and the Bears could use him on a limited basis, possibly as a decoy.
"It never hurts to have him lined up in there," Toub said. "It just plays on the mind of the other team. Are you going to play him? Is he going to return it, is he going to fair catch it, is he going let it drop? You never know. Those are all things we're thinking about, and that's why it's a game-time decision."
The two-time Pro Bowler is off to a relatively quiet start and averaged just 21.7 yards on three kickoffs against Carolina while returning two punts for 9 yards before the injury. He has six kickoff returns for just 120 yards and is averaging 11.3 yards on 25 punt returns this season.
Even so, losing him would be a big blow.
Last season, he broke his own NFL record by running back four punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. The third-year pro is fourth on the NFL's career list with 11 kick return scores and needs just two to tie Brian Mitchell's mark.
He also returned a missed field goal 108 yards in 2006 and ran back the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl against Indianapolis that season for a touchdown.
"It's very sore, that's the main thing," Hester said. "But it's getting better. There are more things I'm starting to be able to do."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press