LAKE FOREST, Ill. --
The snow-covered sign just outside the Chicago Bears' practice facility reads "Play Angry."
To send a message Monday to rookie returner Devin Hester, it should have been changed to "Play Smart."
Few players are capable of eliciting as many "oohs" as "ughs" as Hester, the former University of Miami and Suncoast High standout whose special teams prowess has helped Chicago reach Sunday's NFC Championship Game against visiting New Orleans.
Hester's six returns for touchdowns during the regular season set an NFL record and provided a boost to offensive and defensive units that performed erratically down the stretch. But his league-leading eight fumbles -- two of which were lost -- make every punt and kick Hester tries to field exciting for the wrong reason.
Chicago's 27-24 overtime victory over visiting Seattle in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game was reflective of Hester's roller-coaster season. During one of the few times a Seattle specialist gave him a clean shot at a return, Hester zoomed 66 yards for a fourth-quarter TD, only to have the play nullified by an illegal block.
But Hester muffed three return attempts, which evoked memories of the disastrous performance he had in November's 31-13 loss to the Dolphins. Bears special teams coach Dave Toub said Monday that Hester was trying too hard to impress friends and family when playing the Dolphins and felt he also was pressing against Seattle.
"That's the issue we're having right now with Devin," Toub said. "When he gets in the game, he's taking off before he has the ball in his hands a lot of times. He's got to finish the catch."
Toub, whose special teams units are considered among the NFL's best, said the Bears are trying to help Hester improve his decision-making by placing would-be tacklers in front of him during practice drills.
But what may ultimately help Hester correct his fumbling problem is his levelheaded attitude.
"I just continue to push on and not let it bother me," said Hester, a second-round draft pick who also has received snaps as a reserve defensive back. "Things happen in NFL games. I don't try to dwell on it.
"I try to say, `It happened. Let's move onto the next one.'"
Such an approach has helped Hester's teammates remain patient with the soft-spoken 24-year-old, who brings a Bible with him to every game as a testament to the Christian upbringing by his mother, Juanita Brown.
"Sometimes a guy will go in the tank and can't come out," Bears linebacker and special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "But Hester, he's trying to be the best ... I think right now he's still a butterfly in a cocoon."
There would be no better time for Hester to emerge than Sunday to lift the Bears into Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4 at Dolphin Stadium.
"We're going to stick with him," said Toub, who dismissed any thought of benching Hester against New Orleans in favor of a more sure-handed player. "He's a Pro Bowl returner. You see what happens when he gets the ball in his hands. He's very dangerous."
Alex Marvez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.