MIAMI -- Tony Dungy isn't taking any chances. Sure, the Colts are seven-point favorites, but the Indy coach still may insert several defensive starters on special teams because he knows the Bears' Devin Hester could make the supposed seven-point edge vanish instantly.
The rookie cornerback turn Road Runner set an NFL record with six returns for touchdowns during the regular season, and the Bears are undefeated when he returns a kick for a score.
A University of Miami product who once ran a 4.2 in the 40-yard dash, Hester isn't the only player who flourishes on Chicago's special teams. Kicker Robbie Gould and Brendon Ayanbadejo, a reserve linebacker used primarily on coverage, give Chicago three of the four players on the NFC's Pro Bowl special-teams unit. And the Bears unit has been so special that punter Brad Maynard -- a Pro Bowl alternate - easily could have been a fourth. Even Chicago's long snapper, Patrick Mannelly, is considered to be one of the best at his position.
"We take a lot of pride in [special teams]," Gould said recently. "We wish we would have swept the whole thing."
Naturally, Hester has garnered the most acclaim after scoring on three punts, two kickoff returns (both in a one game) and after a missed field goal attempt. And though he hasn't doesn't much in the playoffs (kickoff returns of 20, 19 and 20 yards while flubbing a few), he could be especially dangerous playing in Miami, where the conditions will be a lot better than those at Soldier Field in January.
But the chances of Hester erupting Sunday increase because of Indy's not-so-special unit allowing an average of 26.0 per kickoff return and 13.1 per punt. Two kickoff returners have scored against Indy this season, and four have gained at least 40 yards. In the AFC Championship, Ellis Hobbs gouged Indy's unit throughout the game, including an 80-yard kickoff return.
Even if Dungy inserts defensive starters, Indy's kickers will likely avoid Hester, who has five returns for at least 83 yards. That leaves Rashied Davis, who's averaging 23.5 yards on 32 kickoffs. But all eyes will be on Hester. "It's a great feeling to have such high expectations," Hester said. "I don't look at it as pressure. I just feed off of it and just kind of go with the flow."
Here's how tough it was getting into Dwyane Wade's party on Thursday night at American Airlines Arena after the Heat star produced his latest virtuoso performance against LeBron James' Cavaliers: Donovan McNabb was given a hard time at the door before finally departing. First, Jeff Garcia leads the Eagles to the playoffs after the franchise quarterback gets injured. Then McNabb has to spend several minutes making his case at a party. The catch is that McNabb brought a contingent of roughly 20 folks. And to McNabb's credit, he refused to big-time his pals and attend the event without them. Wade's people appeared to go overboard, making the party as difficult to enter as Fort Knox. McNabb would have enjoyed himself several blocks away at Bauer's Pure Rush, which had several celebrities, including guys like Willie McGinest and Warren Moon, in the VIP room having a blast ...
E-mailer Lauren, who admits that she's a friend of Rex Grossman's, threw out some interesting stats in support of the Bears quarterback. In Grossman's first full season, his record was 13-3. He had 3,193 yards passing for 23 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, three fumbles plus a 73.9 rating. Brett Favre's first full season: 3,303 yards, 29 touchdowns versus 24 interceptions, 14 fumbles and a 72.2 rating. His team was 9-7. She also listed numbers that put Grossman in a favorable light compared to Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Peyton Manning and Steve Young. But for some reason, I don't think these stats will appease Grossman bashers ...
Mostly thoughtful responses to my column on how Dungy's acumen is overlooked while lesser white coaches are trumpeted. Lawrence Bigman of Lawrence, Kan., wrote: "Nunyo, your application of the race card is so 1990s. If you call an NFL coach who has never won a Super Bowl a genius, your threshold for using the word is shockingly low. Is Marty Schottenheimer a genius, too? He's won plenty of regular-season games also."
But James from Naptown disagrees: "I am so glad that someone has finally taken the time to write about this. Of course, without question Belichick is a brilliant coach, but over the years, whenever the Colts have played New England, it has always been billed as Manning versus Belichick and Brady: As if the Colts have no coach." ...
Someone asked me Thursday night if I was Harold Reynolds, the ex-ESPN baseball analyst. I haven't gotten that since the late 1990s, when I lived in Seattle, where he played for the Mariners.