LAKE FOREST – Three hundred ninety-nine days have passed since the last time Devin Hester scored on special teams.
Today marks Day 400 of the drought.
Hester had another number in mind in the days leading up to the season opener. After a practice in early September, he stood in front of his locker and told reporters that he wanted to score 16 touchdowns – 10 as a receiver and six as a kick returner.
Upon hearing Hester’s lofty goal, one reporter widened her eyes in surprise.
“Why are you looking like that?” Hester asked.
By now, it should be apparent.
Hester’s scoreless streak on special teams has spanned 31 punt returns and 18 kickoff returns this season. His next chance to find the end zone will come Sunday when the Bears (8-5) play the Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Soldier Field.
Hester last saw the end zone when he returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown against Detroit on Nov. 13, 2011.
Not since 2009 has Hester come so close to being shut out for a full season on special teams. He returned kicks for five touchdowns in 2006 and six touchdowns in 2007 before going without a touchdown in each of the next two seasons.
Hester bounced back with three return touchdowns apiece in 2010 and 2011.
Now, Hester has replaced that upward trajectory with a slew of sideways returns.
Despite the drought, Hester has stayed upbeat during practices at Halas Hall. His positive approach has come as no surprise to Bears special teams coach Dave Toub.
“He’s been down this road before,” Toub said. “I mean, we went two years straight without getting a return, so this is nothing new. It happens.
“We just keep working, and we’ve got a few more games left in the regular season, and hopefully we can get one. This would be a good week.”
A rivalry game could bring out the best in Hester, who scored his first special-teams touchdown on an 84-yard punt return against the Packers in 2006 and added a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Packers four years later.
Hester, 30, is the NFL’s all-time leader with 17 kick return touchdowns. He has returned 12 punts for touchdowns, which also is a league record, along with five kickoff returns for touchdowns in almost seven full seasons on the lakefront.
Add Hester’s 108-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown Nov. 12, 2006, and the South Florida native is one shy of matching Deion Sanders’ overall record of 19 combined return touchdowns.
Hester acknowledged the thought of tying and surpassing Sanders’ record has crossed his mind.
“I have a lot more years in me, so I’m hoping I can get that [record] as soon as possible so that question and that thought can erase in my mind,” Hester said, “and I can go ahead and continue to play ball.”
Making history is nice, but winning games is nicer.
The Bears are tied for No. 22 in the NFL with an average punt return of 8.1 yards this season, and they are second-to-last in the league with an average kickoff return of 19 yards. Short returns have increased pressure on the offense, which also has faltered with the fifth-worst production in the league.
As Hester has slumped, kick returners on other teams have surged. Ten players have returned kickoffs for touchdowns this season, while 13 players have returned punts for touchdowns.
Packers punt returner Randall Cobb added his name to the list with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1. Cobb, who has three return touchdowns at age 22, said Hester remained an elite playmaker.
“I know how dangerous he is as a returner,” Cobb said. “We as a team know how dangerous he is. I have a lot of respect for him. I broke his film down a couple of seasons ago, just watching him and trying to learn from him.
“He’s dangerous regardless of his drought. At any time, he has the ability to take it [to the end zone].”
Bears bits: Brian Urlacher (knee), Tim Jennings (shoulder) and Earl Bennett (concussion) each were ruled out for Sunday’s game because of injuries. … Henry Melton (chest) and Shea McClellin (knee) were listed as doubtful to play. … Bears coach Lovie Smith downplayed concern about neck and knee injuries for Jay Cutler, who was listed as probable on the injury report.