Even if Devin Hester leads the NFL in kick returns or adds to his all-time touchdown record, the only way he’ll go to the Pro Bowl this season is by buying a ticket to the game.
As part of radical changes to the Pro Bowl, the NFL announced Wednesday that kickoffs will be eliminated from the game and return specialists no longer will be part of the all-star teams.
As you’d expect, Hester isn’t very happy about the decision. The eight-year veteran, who holds the NFL’s all-time record with 17 kick return touchdowns, will be used exclusively as a return specialist this year after doubling as a receiver the previous six seasons.
“It’s something that my family looks forward to every year as well as me preparing and training,” said Hester, who has been selected to three Pro Bowls since joining the Bears in 2006.
“As a returner, that’s a goal that you set. If you don’t make the Super Bowl, then hopefully you have something else that you can fall back on and say, ‘I accomplished that.’ As far as taking it out, it [stinks]. For a person like me that’s only doing returns, it’s one less goal I have to [achieve].”
Eric Weems, who returned 13 kickoffs for the Bears last season and was voted to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player with the Falcons in 2010, feels Hester’s pain.
“That’s ridiculous if you ask me,” Weems said. “I thought everyone had equal opportunity. If a guy shows that he’s one of the top kick returners or punt returners in the league, he should have the opportunity to go to the Pro Bowl. That’s a third of the game gone.
“I’m very shocked by it, and I can see why Hester’s upset also. That’s what he’s doing out here. That’s him. That’s his DNA. If he returns six or seven kicks for touchdowns, he needs to go to the Pro Bowl, regardless of any situation. I’m shocked by it. That’s ridiculous.”
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With Devin Hester ruled out of Sunday’s home game against the Seahawks due to a concussion, Eric Weems will become the Bears’ primary return specialist.
The six-year veteran took over for Hester in last Sunday’s 28-10 win over the Vikings, averaging 21.7 yards on three kickoff returns, well below his 25.3-yard career average.
“It was good to get him in there and knock the dust off,” said special teams coordinator Dave Toub. “I expect him to be a lot better this week. I expect him to take a little more of a jump and hit the ball a little bit faster up the field. He’s excited about the opportunities he’s going to get this week.”
Weems possesses a different skill set than Hester, who has averaged 8.0 yards on 26 punt returns with a long of 44 yards and 25.5 yards on 18 kickoff returns with a long of 38 yards this season.
“He’s a lot more north and south, good vision, strong, up-the-field player whereas Devin is going to try to make you miss, run around you and a lot of times get to the edge,” Toub said.
Weems signed with the Bears in March after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Falcons. The 5-9, 195-pounder, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2010 as the NFC’s special teams representative, excelled in Atlanta both on the kick return and coverage teams.
Weems ranks second on the Bears in special teams tackles with 10, one behind Blake Costanzo.
“[Weems] has been great,” Toub said. “He’s been a leader for us. He and Blake go back and forth and they are always competing: ‘Who made the tackle? Who is getting doubled? Who isn’t?’ It’s a lot of fun as far as the coverage goes and it’s good to get Weems in the return game.”
Toub has enjoyed working with Weems, who is a feisty agitator on the field. Against the Vikings, he drew a 15-yard penalty against cornerback A.J. Jefferson for a shove after the whistle.
“He’s tough,” Toub said. “He’s real quiet at practice and he’s kind of different. When it’s game time, he’s a lot more vocal, and when he blocks you he lets you know about it.
“He kind of ticks some people off sometimes, and something they push him back and they can’t believe this guy is beating them. He’s a fun guy to be around. He’s been a pleasure to have.”
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After watching Eric Weems excel on special teams with the Falcons the last five seasons, Dave Toub was happy to see the 5-9, 195-pounder make his Bears debut Saturday night against the Redskins.
“I knew what he can do, but it was good to see it on our team making plays for us,” said the Bears special teams coordinator. “That was impressive I thought.”
Weems played against the Redskins after sitting out the preseason opener versus the Broncos with an ankle injury.
“He did really good,” Toub said. “He had the sprained ankle the first week, but it was good to see him out there. He’s still not even 100 percent and he showed us a lot.”
In five seasons with the Falcons, Weems recorded 41 special teams tackles and averaged 25.6 yards on 113 kickoff returns with one touchdown and 10.6 yards on 77 punt returns with one TD.
The Bethune-Cookman product was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010 and returned a kickoff 102 yards for a TD in a 2011 playoff game against the Packers.
“He is going to be a four-phase player,” Toub said. “He is going to be a starting gunner for us. He also will play on kick return. Either he is going to be the kick returner or maybe on the front line or the off returner. But we’re expecting him to play all four phases for us.”
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After missing part of training camp and the preseason opener with an ankle injury, receiver Eric Weems is healthy and excited about playing in Saturday night’s game against the Redskins.
“I’m just going to go out and play football; what I’ve been blessed to do all my years in the NFL,” said Weems, who signed with the Bears in March after spending his first five seasons with the Falcons from 2007-10. “I’m just going to go out and play football and everything will take care of itself.
“I feel good. The coaches gave me some time to get right and I feel like I’m good to go and ready to perform.”
Weems caught 24 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns in 55 career games with the Falcons. He also excelled on special teams, earning a Pro Bowl nomination in 2010. In five seasons Weems recorded 41 special-teams tackles and averaged 25.6 yards on 113 kickoff returns with one touchdown and 10.6 yards on 77 punt returns with one TD.
In addition, he returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown in a 2011 playoff game against the Packers.
Among other roles, Weems is expected to serve as a gunner on punt coverage this season.
“The key is to beat the man in front of you,” he said. “You’ve got to have a lot of skill to do that, to beat two guys at one time. You’ve just got to be patient and once you see an opportunity you’ve got to go because the window of opportunity of beating two guys opens and closes right away.”
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