Bears won't re-sign Devin Hester
After the Bears informed Hester he wouldn't be re-signed for 2014, general manager Phil Emery released a statement Thursday thanking the record-setting returner.
"For the past eight seasons, we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization," Emery said. "While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers."
Interestingly, the team parted ways in 2013 with future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher in similar fashion.
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Hester returned the opening kick in Super Bowl XLI 92 yards for a score, giving him a league-record 20 return TDs in the regular season and playoffs.
"Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person," Emery said. "He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish him and his family all the best."
Hester made the news of his pending departure public Wednesday during an interview with NFL Network.
"From my knowledge, I know that Chicago wants to go a different route with me," Hester said. "All I can say is thanks to the fans for their support. They've always been great to me, always been loyal. I couldn't have played for a better city than those guys. At the end of my career, I do want to retire as a member of the Bears."
Hester later took to his Facebook page to thank the team's fans.
"To all my Chicago people ... I can't thank you all enough for my time in Chicago," he wrote. "I've always said I wanted to retire a Chicago Bear but sometimes things don't work out the way we would like. Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart and if I am fortunate enough to break the return record, we will have all broken it together ... no matter where I am. Thank you again and God Bless."
Urlacher's exit from Chicago played out similarly last offseason.
The linebacker became a free agent last March for the first time in his career, and although he engaged briefly in negotiations for a new contract with the club, the sides cut off talks on March 20. Soon after, the Bears issued a statement announcing the sides couldn't come to an agreement and therefore would part ways.
Urlacher, an analyst for Fox Sports 1, weighed in on Hester's situation.
"Look at what the Steelers have done the last couple days signing Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, some older guys to a couple more years just so they can retire as Steelers," Urlacher said. "The Bears could do that with Devin. He should retire a Bear. He set all those records in a Bears uniform and his No. 23 should be retired one day in Chicago.
"It's just the loyalty factor. It's just not there. He should be a guy that retires as a Bear.Hester endured several lulls on returns during his career, particularly when the Bears tried to make him a receiver. But he showed some of his old form while focusing solely on returns last season.
Hester's TD return against Washington last season was his first in nearly two years. He led the NFL with a career-high 1,436 kick return yards on a league-high 52 tries, including five returns for a team-record 249 yards against Minnesota in Week 2 of last season.
But with Hester focusing primarily on returns in 2013, it's likely the team held expectations that he would return to greatness on a more consistent basis. Toward the end of last season, the Bears signed receiver/return specialist Chris Williams, who had spent time with the New Orleans Saints and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League prior to joining the Bears. Other candidates on the roster to replace Hester on returns include veterans Eric Weems and Earl Bennett.
In 123 games (46 starts) over eight seasons, Hester's 3,241 punt return yards are eighth most in NFL history and his 12.3 punt return average ranks No. 5. Hester is the club's all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards, kickoff return yards (5,504) and total kick return yards (8,745) and is second in all-purpose yards (11,632).
A three-time Pro Bowler (2006, 2007 and 2010), Hester was named to the 2000s All-Decade team by The Associated Press and ESPN. He was the rookie recipient of the team's 2006 Brian Piccolo Award, which is elected by Bears players for teammates they feel best exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of the late Piccolo.
Hester has expressed some interest in a reunion with former Bears coach Lovie Smith with Tampa Bay.
"I look at Lovie as my No. 1 coach right now because he's the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft," Hester said. "He has all my respect. So if he's a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open."