On the John
The blink of an eye
Originally completed October 18, 2010
With two minutes and eight seconds remaining in yesterday’s professional football contest between the Chicago Bears and the Seattle Seahawks, the lightning-heeled Devin Hester secured a Seattle punt with both hands, leaned to the right as he set his feet, and, for an instant, paused. I love that little pause. Fourteen times in his NFL career, the man from Miami has returned some sort of kick for a touchdown; most began with a pause.
Sometimes the pause is so small it is felt more than seen. That was the case on Hester’s comeback capper against Leinart’s Cardinals in 2006. And on his sideline dash at the ’07 home opener against KC. And again two games later on a kick return inside Detroit’s Silverdome.
Those two returns in that wonderful win against Cutler’s Broncos – both started with his signature pregnant pause, so potent in precision.
Against Seattle, the pause was nearly imperceptible. It featured the briefest of stutters into a right foot push off the grass. He then ran left four steps, pivoted right, turned upfield… and it was here that I first felt that old school Hester Rush, the spark of excitement that accompanies the first few seconds of any successful Devin Hester return.
Because of the television angle, his return against Green Bay three weeks ago did not include quite the same rush. Hester fielded that punt at the Chicago 39, created his balance with two small steps backward, turned upfield, cut right, then cut upfield again at the Chicago 44. He was, seemingly, headed straight for a wall of white shirts and yellow pants…
But then he split two defenders, crossed midfield, and by the time he reached the Green Bay 48, he was clear.
This return was different. The Hester Rush arrived when Devin reached the 12-yard line “in space.” The Pause had accomplished two goals: it gave Garrett Wolfe and Rashied Davis space to seal their men along the hash marks, and it gave Hester a quick look at the field without betraying his direction of choice. This manipulation of the opposition’s coverage is the key element to any Hester punt return touchdown.
Still at the Chicago 12 but closer to the field’s middle, Hester has a clean view of the defense. One Seattle defender – the man Wolfe was blocking – is already grounded behind him. Two are being sealed to his right by Rashied Davis. One is to his left near Bear Nick Roach. One is straight ahead. Two are so far to Hester’s right they will have no impact on the play. That’s seven Seahawks accounted for in the return’s first two yards, leaving just three other defenders along with the punter Jon Ryan.
As Hester runs left, linebacker Aaron Curry, the defender near Roach, probably thinks he has a play. Curry is a few steps ahead of Roach, and Hester is running toward him.
But then Hester executes his second foot-spring push-off, this time using his left foot to redirect his motion to the right. For an instant, Curry slows. Hester has given Roach the advantage, and the linebacker easily guides Curry further upfield. Knowing Hester is about to dart past him, Curry swings back around to his right, giving Roach even greater position to knock the Seattle defender off-balance.
Meanwhile, Hester easily handles Seattle defensive back Kam Chancellor, the one who was “straight ahead,” by leaning his body at the 13, letting Chancellor follow, and then exploding off his right foot at the 15 as Chancellor hesitates and stumbles. Two more Seattle defenders and Bears blockers enter Hester’s five-yard bubble, while fifteen yards upfield and three steps closer to the sideline runs linebacker Will Herring. Perfect, Hester must be thinking, if he is thinking anything at all. Five yards into the return, and Seattle’s ten non-punters are set up.
He crosses the 16 angled to the left and charges straight for a gap between Roach – who uses his left hand to pester Curry – and linebacker Rod Wilson. Chancellor tries in vain to regain position, and for a moment, it looks as if Wilson will have a play on Chancellor. Nearby, Bears tight end Kellen Davis is blocking – and soon, upending – linebacker David Hawthorne, and Wilson must think that he too is going to lay some wood on a hapless Seahawk.
But his presence alone is enough for Hester, who uses Wilson more as a guiding post than a blocker.
Now at the 17, Hester hits the jets. Hawthorne is a millisecond away from being on his back; Curry is still jostling with Roach; Chancellor has just figured out that Hester is leaving. Hester crosses the 20 with nine Seattle defenders behind him. To his right is Wilson. Further right, still pursuing across the field, is Herring. And dashing toward Hester is the last man: Jon Ryan, the punter. At the 25, Hester dips his shoulder ever-so-slightly and then bolts back left. He will soon cross the left hash mark, breaking “outside the numbers” for the final foot race. Both Ryan and Herring try to take good angles on Hester, but already they have no chance – zero – of even reaching him.
Still, Ryan persists, like any good kicker, hoping to make the stop on The Magnificent Devin Hester, or at least to slow him while his teammates give chase. Earlier in the game, Robbie Gould helped nudge Seattle return man Leon Washington out of bounds, and now Ryan, in all his dogged determination, must have thought he would do the same…
BAM! With his eyes fixed on Hester, Ryan is blasted by a charging Earl Bennett. Way back when this punt began, Bennett was the closest to blocking Ryan’s kick. When he missed, he jogged away from the play, turned around, and just like Hester at the 12, got a clean view of the action and determined how best to make his mark. As Hester shot past Roach, Wilson, Chancellor, and Curry, the slim Bennett spotted Ryan, charged him, dug his right foot into the turf, leaned his left shoulder into Ryan’s right and introduced the fifth year punter to the moon, the sky, the birds, the grass, bright lights, and busted ribs.
With two minutes and zero seconds remaining in the game, Devin Hester passed Will Herring at midfield. All eleven Seahawks now present and accounted for, the man from Miami danced Deion-style into the endzone, giving the fans at Soldier Field the slimmest of hopes and the greatest of thrills. The run took fourteen seconds. He was never touched.
Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, sports, and community in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Amazon.com. Say hey at twitter/readjack or facebook/readjack.
Enjoy a spoken word version of this column, featuring the music of Eyes Manouche…
COME BACK THE DAY AFTER EVERY 2010 BEARS GAME for a new column from Jack M Silverstein, right here at readjack.com
WEEK 1: Once a Bears fan…
WEEK 2: 2-0 and beyond the infinite
WEEK 4: Column canceled due to vicarious concussion
WEEK 5: Sacked, slimed, and feeling fine
More on the brilliance of Devin Hester
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