As you’d imagine, one of the most celebrated return specialists in the history of the game is unhappy that the NFL has decided that return specialists have as much place at the Pro Bowl as slow-witted quarterbacks and easily blocked defensive tackles.
Devin Hester has 17 career touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns, which have helped him earn three selections to the Pro Bowl. It’s unlikely that the Bear will be making any more trips to the game now that the league has put the kibosh on him and his peers, a decision that Hester responded to after hearing the news on Wednesday.
“That was one of my goals for this season. I won’t make the Pro Bowl. They can’t do that,” Hester said, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. “If you are taking the returner out of the Pro Bowl, you’re taking two positions out. That will suck for me. They are trying to change up the whole game of football and they’re messing with people’s jobs and lives.”
This isn’t the first step the NFL has taken to de-emphasize the kickoff and those who see it as a harbinger of its eventual exclusion from the game are probably on the right track, so this might not be the last time Hester’s upset by a decision the league makes. Our biggest problem is that by making a change billed at making the Pro Bowl “the ultimate fan-friendly celebration of the game,” the league makes it possible to ignore players who thrill fans the most during the season.
Kickoff returns have dropped in importance thanks to previous rules changes, but punt returns remain a crucial part of games. Doing it well is something that should be applauded rather than treated like a cute but unimportant skill.
Whether it is Hester scoring six times in 2007 or Patritck Peterson returning four punts for touchdowns in 2011, there are years when returners are among the most exciting players of the year and the most deserving of a place in a game designed for the best players in a given season. Those players won’t pop up every year, but there should be a spot for them in the league’s all-star game when they do.