Special Teams was special at times during the 2008 season, while other times it was definitely a step behind from years past. Dave Toub’s Special Teams unit ranked 1st in the NFL in 2006 and 2007, while it looks like they’ll finish 8th in 2008. when the final stats are compiled.
I’ll give 11 year veteran Patrick Mannelly his own section because he has flown under the radar throughout most of his career and I think he deserves the attention. The next time he makes a bad snap will be the first time. He is as consistent as they come in the NFL and the best Duke player to come to Chicago since Elton Brand. (Sorry Jay Williams, you should have stayed off the motorcycle!)
Robbie Gould converted 90% of his field goal attempts, going 26 out of 29. He added 41 out of 41 extra points. I’d still like to see one of the highest paid kickers in the league able to line up beyond 50 yards, but aside from that, I can’t ask more of the Bears kicker who has topped 100 points the past 3 seasons and should pass George Blanda as the Bears all-time scoring leader next season.
Brad Maynard led the league with 40 punts inside the 20. Despite what seemed to be a mid-season slump when he didn’t boom the giant punts, Maynard consistently pinned opponents deep in their own end.
Danieal Manning led the league with average kickoff return yardage with the minimum number of touches to emerge as the Bears primary kick returner. He must protect the ball to continue to excel next season. It would help if he could learn his defensive assignments too.
Two words I never thought I’d say in a bad context – Devin Hester. Many critics will point to some turnover of the special teams units, like the loss of Brendon Ayanbadejo, as a source for the early season struggles as a kick returner, but when Danieal Manning took over kick return duties, that theory went out the window. Hester could not regain the magic of the past 2 seasons. He seemed to have lost his confidence somewhere in the offensive meeting room.
Way too many times, he was running sideways and even backwards trying to break one. He finished the season ranked 57th among punt returners with a 6.2 yard punt return average, while he ranked 22nd with 198 return yards. 198 yards?!?! That’s a dramatic dropoff from 651 yards last season when he had 5 returns for touchdown.
Both kick and punt coverage units did fine this year. The coverage was adequate, though they did give up some long returns, but no TD’s. Second year running back Garrett Wolfe stepped up and always seemed to be in the mix on the coverage units. I’m glad our 3rd round pick from a year ago can make some sort of contribution to this team. The team no doubt missed Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo, but did a decent job with lots of new faces counted on to contribute. Hopefully with a year under their belts, these units will improve in 2009.
The single-most important offseason project for special teams is to help Devin Hester get his groove back. There’s a How Stella Got Her Groove Back joke in here somewhere, but I don’t know the movie well enough to nail it. Somebody help!
The Bears should move Hester from his wide receiver duties or bring in a sports psychologist; I don’t care which. Fix this and make him relevant again! It’s not worth the 665 receiving yards and 3 TD’s he was able to contribute on offense to lose this weapon on special teams. Leave it to the Bears to neuter what many called league’s most dangerous returner after his first two seasons!