Predictably, Hester not a big fan of NFL's new kickoff rule

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – In what should come as a surprise to no one, Bears Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Hester doesn’t like the NFL’s new rule moving kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35.

“It could hinder us a little bit because we dwell on good field position,” Hester told “Waddle and Silvy” on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. “That’s one of our key assets to our offense, the return game giving the offense good field position. And not only giving good field position, but we’re trying to put points on the board when it comes to the return game. I think it’s going to hurt us.”

The new rule, which was passed by NFL owners at league meetings Tuesday in New Orleans, figures to be a major disadvantage for the Bears. Last season they led the NFL with 10 kickoff returns of at least 40 yards and tied for first with an average starting position following kickoffs at their own 31.5-yard line.

Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips, general manager Jerry Angelo, coach Lovie Smith and special teams coordinator Dave Toub all voiced their opposition to moving kickoffs up five yards to the 35. The rule later passed by a 26-6 vote with the Bears among the teams voting against it.
“I can’t believe we’re even talking about that,” Smith told reporters Tuesday morning before the vote was taken. “It’s the most exciting play in the game. We’re totally against the rule.”

Five of the Bears’ eight longest kickoff returns in 2010 may have resulted in touchbacks had the ball been kicked from the 35 instead of the 30. Hester had returns of 68 and 46 yards that he caught two yards deep in the end zone and at the goal line; Danieal Manning had returns of 62 and 44 yards that originated at the goal line and one yard deep in the end zone; and Johnny Knox had a 42-yarder that he hauled in five yards deep in the end zone.

“They’ve gone too far. They’re taking the whole fun out of the game,” Hester said. “The fans come out, especially in Chicago, to see returns. That’s one of our key assets to our team. Fans love our big returns. Not only do they kick it out of bounds when it’s time to punt the ball. But now they get this advantage on kickoffs where we felt we were guaranteed a kickoff return. Now you’re taking that away from our return game. The return game is out of the picture.”

Hester owns the all-time NFL record with 14 combined kick return touchdowns. Last season his 35.6-yard average on kickoff returns was tops in the league, although his 12 returns weren’t enough to officially qualify for the honor.

Since 2008, Manning leads the NFL with 17 kickoff returns of at least 40 yards and also ranks fourth over that span with a 27.1-yard average. Knox ranks second with a 27.7-yard average. Hester and Knox both have been voted to the Pro Bowl as return specialists, while Manning led the NFL in kickoff returns in 2008 with a 29.7-yard average.

Opponents have attempted high and short “pooch” kickoffs with varying degrees of success against the Bears. But Hester feels those could be a thing of the past because all NFL kickers are capable of reaching the end zone from the 35.

“What they’ve been doing is blooping them up in the air and giving their defenders enough time to get down the field to make a tackle,” Hester said. “Now that they’ve got the five-yard rule, it’s even easier for them to kick it into the end zone.”

The Bears may counteract that tactic by bringing kickoffs out from deep in the end zone, something they already do seemingly as much as any other team.

“From Day 1 if they kick a line drive and there’s not a certain amount of hang time on the ball, we’re [not prohibited from] taking it out,” Hester said. “The coaches give us the green light to do it. But at the same time that’s going to be real tough for returners.”

Click here to order Devin Hester’s proCane Rookie Card.

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