MANKATO - Of all the Devin Hester magic that Zack Bowman witnessed during his four seasons with the Chicago Bears, the special teams play he's most proud of came in Week 15 of 2010. That's when Hester popped a 64-yard punt return against the Vikings on the ice rink at TCF Bank Stadium. That was the play that gave Hester an NFL-record 14 returns for touchdowns.
The highlight of that sequence focused on Hester skating virtually unobstructed up the right sideline -- one juke and an all-out sprint to the end zone.
Bowman's contribution was far more subtle. As part of Chicago's gunner control, he simply locked onto Vikings cornerback Frank Walker, held his ground and created an opening.
Away Hester went.
"Getting Devin the record was something we took great pride in," Bowman said. "We knew we were one away, and we wanted to finish that thing off. But to be honest, I think what made it special is that in Chicago we took pride in every punt, in every kickoff, in every return. There was such a concentration on maximizing every opportunity."
That Bowman invests deeply in his under-the-radar role as a special teams pawn should not be underestimated. After all, it may be what allows the 27-year-old cornerback to earn a spot on the Vikings roster.
Heading into Friday night's preseason opener at San Francisco, Bowman has yet to prove he deserves to be in the mix at cornerback. This week's depth chart lists him fourth at right corner behind Chris Cook, Chris Carr and Josh Robinson. But Bowman has also proven his worth on the first unit of the Vikings' kickoff and kickoff return teams as well as with the punt and punt return units.
That could be significant. In many cases, when the tough roster cuts are made later this month, tiebreaking advantages will go to the guys who can be reliable special teams difference-makers. That gives such players as Bowman, linebacker Larry Dean and safety Eric Frampton a better chance to stick around.
"I've tried to get that message across to as many guys as I can," Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said. "At the end of the day if you're not a starter, you need to play special teams and you need to contribute somehow so I can jump on the table for you and help you make this football team."
Adding a leader
Priefer has no hesitation expressing his admiration for Bowman's intelligence and leadership skills.
Priefer also readily confesses that the Vikings' March signing of Bowman had him giddy. He wanted to hear firsthand some of the secrets to Chicago's special teams success.
"I was grilling him," Priefer said. "It was me trying to get information from him not only about the Chicago Bears and what they do and how they teach things, but what made them so successful. I know they have a great returner and they have a good kicker and a good punter, but there's also the mentality they take to every Sunday. That's where I want our guys to get to."
Bowman admits the Bears' special teams attitude was a big deal, something he quickly bought into as a rookie in 2008 under coordinator Dave Toub. The goal every game in Chicago, Bowman said, was to either score in the return game or create a turnover in coverage.
"We wanted to go out there and outperform the offense and the defense," Bowman said. "That was our mindset. We wanted to prove that we were also a big part of the team."
With the Vikings, Bowman has a chance to excel in his gunner control role on punt returns and perhaps even more so as a gunner on the punt team. That's something the Vikings coaches will be analyzing when they review Friday night's game.
All about production
As a gunner, can Bowman consistently get off blocks and win against single press? Can he make good decisions and apply the techniques he's been taught by the Vikings coaches?
Priefer has been direct with all his special teams players, demanding great effort in practice, attentiveness in meetings and the focus to avoid being "an error repeater."
"At the end of the day the big one is production," Priefer said. "Are you the guy that makes plays when the plays are there to be made?"
As if Bowman's special teams dedication wasn't already obvious, on the Vikings' first training camp off day on July 29, the veteran cornerback opted to remain in Mankato, spending a chunk of his Sunday in the classroom. There, he and Priefer took turns picking each other's brains.
The duo watched more than 50 practice clips of punt coverage, assessing the good and the bad.
Every little bit counts at this stage. And Bowman knows he will need an edge somewhere to make the team.
"If you're not starting, you better find a way to get noticed," Bowman said. "I know I have to be a big part of special teams. It's a special group. That's why they call it special teams. Because your starters don't want to go out there and do what we do."
So has Bowman given Priefer reason to jump on the table?
"It's still early. We'll let you know after this first game," Priefer said. "But he is a guy I have liked coaching."
That counts for something. But just how much?