Under Lovie Smith and the leadership of Dave Toub, Robbie Gould and Devin Hester the Bears had a reputation for some of the best special teams in the NFL.
With the departure of Smith, Toub chose to leave and accept the special teams job in Kansas City under Andy Reid who he worked for in Philadelphia before coming to Chicago, and Marc Trestman hired Joe Decamillis away from the Cowboys as special teams and assistant head coach.
In the first year under Trestman and Decamillis, the Bears special teams remained strong again.
The return game and Devin Hester took a nice step forward. After finishing the 2012 season 27th in punt return average and 32nd returning kickoffs, the Bears decided the Hester wide receiver experiment was over and he would be strictly a return man in 2013. Hester responded and the team improved to second in punt return average and 16th returning kickoffs. Hester improved from a 25.9 kick return average and a long of 40 in 2012 to 27.6 and a long of 80 in 2013, and made even more dramatic gains returning punts moving from an 8.3 average with a long of 44 to 14.2 with a long of 81 and a touchdown this year.
Coverage teams remained solid, as well, with the Bears first in the league covering punts in 2012 and fourth covering kickoffs, and finishing fourth in the league covering kickoffs and first in punt coverage in 2013.
Robbie Gould’s season will unfairly be remembered by a missed 47-yard field goal attempt in overtime in Minnesota when he in fact remained one of the league’s best kickers. Gould hit on 26 of his other 28 attempts including all six of his other attempts between 40 and 49 yards, and hit on 3 of 4 from 50-plus yards with his lone miss a 66 yard attempt.
Punter, Adam Podlesh had an off year in 2013. He was 18th in the NFL in 2012 with a 39.4 net punting average and 34 punts dropped inside the 20 with just 6 touchbacks. In 2013 he fell to 29th in net punting average with a 37.9 mark and 27 punts inside the 20, but just two touchbacks.
Coverage specialists Eric Weems, Blake Costanzo and Sherrick McManis were all extremely productive with McManis leading in tackles.
This group gets a B for being solid to excellent in all phases of special teams with the exception of Podlesh’s punting. It is hard to give the overall unit any more than a B though when the punter was among the weakest in the league.
The Bears moved quickly to resign Gould in the week immediately following the end of the season and made him the highest paid placekicker in the league. It is well deserved as Gould remains the third most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL, and first among active kickers pending the return of Nate Kaeding.
Hester is a free agent and unlikely to return for no reason other than salary cap constraints. With massive upgrades needed on defense the Bears cannot afford to pay Hester what he’s worth as one of the game’s premiere returners if the job can be filed by a youngster making near the minimum.
McManis and Costanzo also are free agents as is Patrick Mannelly, the NFL’s best long snapper.
Weems carries a $1.6 million salary cap hit in 2014.
The Bears will almost certainly bring serious competition to the punting spot in training camp this year even though Podlesh is signed for two more years, and if Mannelly retires the Bears will need to make finding his replacement a priority. Mannelly has been so good for so long that his value is often overlooked.