Of course Tarik Cohen is a Devin Hester fan.
“Definitely,” the Bears mercurial running back/kick returner said. “I know he was the only player ever on Madden to have 100 speed [rating]. So I just watched all his highlights. I’m a big fan of him.”
Cohen said he began studying Hester’s highlights instead of just enjoying them when he started returning kicks for the Bears. “I really watched his film and saw how he got his touchdowns,” Cohen said.
The biggest impression? “His speed — that’s the main thing you’re going to see,” Cohen said. “And the courage to catch the ball in any situation and always make that play.”
The 5-6 Cohen is not Devin Hester — who parlayed a sensational rookie season into an 11-year career as the most prolific kick returner in NFL history. But Cohen already has elicited that same kind of anticipation that Hester did — the feeling that anything can happen when he touches the football. And never more so than on a wrong-way run to glory against the 49ers on Sunday — a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown in which Cohen retreated 15 yards to the Bears’ 24 before turning upfield and heading to the end zone.
It was a play that looked destined to end in disaster. But when Bears special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers saw Cohen heading backward to the 24, he was thinking only one thing.
“I hope he goes forward at some point,” Rodgers said.
That’s it? Rodgers insists he never flinched.
“Really. Honestly,” he said. “There’s players like him. I’ve been around the league for 15 years. I’ve seen Dante Hall. I’ve seen [Darren] Sproles. I’ve seen Pacman Jones. Devin Hester. Guys who have done a little bit unorthodox, but they have ultimate confidence in what they’re doing. And they’re tremendously fast and have a tremendous ability to make people miss.”
In the aftermath of that magnificent return, even Cohen acknowledged the 15-yard retreat was a stunt he probably shouldn’t pull again. But Rodgers, perhaps paying him the ultimate compliment, gave him the Devin Hester green light — trusting Cohen’s ability to venture into the abyss and find a way out of it.
“You’ve got to be careful about taking that creativity away from a player like that,” Rodgers said. “Going back to quarterbacks like Michael Vick — those guys are just different. You try and give them some guidance in how you want them to return. But . . . their instincts are going to take over, and you hope they make more good decisions than bad.”
The Bears have put their trust in Cohen. When the Bears trailed the Lions 27-24 with 1:35 left in the fourth quarter, Cohen seemed to ill-advisedly take the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone to the 17-yard line. Taking a touchback would have gained eight yards and saved four seconds. Bad move?
“If it was anybody else but Tarik, maybe,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “But every time that guy has the ball in his hands, he has a chance to do something with it. So when it’s Tarik, I love when he takes the ball out, because we have so much faith when the ball is in his hands to make a play.”
That’s a Hester-like respect
that Cohen already has earned. By this time in 2006, Hester already had three touchdowns on punt returns. But he was a dedicated kick returner. Cohen already has scored touchdowns on a reception, a run and a punt return. He also threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Zach Miller.
Cohen said he has yet to meet Hester. But it probably won’t be long.
“Hopefully he’ll talk to me,” Cohen said. “Big bro’.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.