Three years ago, it was Devin Hester. The next, it was Greg Olsen. Last season, it was Matt Forte.
This year, it's Jay Cutler.
Year by year, the offensive landscape is changing for the Chicago Bears. Slowly but surely, they're stocking their roster with dynamic playmakers who can contribute to multiple facets of the game and change the way that defenses choose to combat the Monsters of the Midway.
With the addition of Jay Cutler, the 2009 offense will undoubtedly have many similarities to its predecessor. However, the stage is set for the team's new quarterback to change the way that they move the ball.
The biggest changes to the playbook this offseason won't merely come in the form of Jay Cutler passing the football. It will come in the form of an increased flexibility.
Certainly nothing is set in stone, and nobody is doubting that the Bears will deviate from their bread-and-butter sets; those being double tight end variations, singleback with three receivers, and I-formation for power running.
In fact, right from the get-go, Cutler makes the two tight-end sets more effective. Given Chicago's personnel, those are the sets that they need to take full advantage of because they offer the most ambiguity.
With two tight ends on the field, the Bears have the flexibility execute either smashmouth running plays or or a variety of passing routes, as well as the ability to audible between the two based on what Cutler reads at the line.
And, yes, Cutler's arm will offer the Bears an opportunity to stretch the field in ways that haven't been seen since Rex Grossman hooked up with Bernard Berrian over and over again in 2006.
However, Jay Cutler's style and reputation gives the Bears the ability to alter their offensive playbook in ways that are not necessarily native to their DNA.
While the Bears are not perceived as a passing team, what Cutler's presence boils down to is the potential for the integration of more pass-specific formations and sets, which could benefit the run just as much as the pass.
In fact, some of the changes have already begun.
For instance, use of the shotgun formation was almost non-existent during the Rex Grossman years of 2006 and 2007, but surged in 2008 under Kyle Orton. While Orton used his college experience in the shotgun to benefit the passing game, it was not uncommon to see Matt Forte take a hand-off out of the shotgun, rushing the ball on a dive or draw.
Running draw plays offers the same benefit to to running game as playaction offers to the passing game: it forces the defense to play more conservatively and leaves them vulnerable when they choose to gamble by committing to either the run or to the pass.
Even when Orton wasn't working out of the shotgun last season, the run game saw some life from pass-specific formations. Matt Forte's first NFL touchdown during Week 1 last year at Indianapolis came as the Bears lined with up four wide receivers.
The Colts brought six defensive backs onto the field to play the pass. But when Chicago's offensive line effectively neutralized Indi's defensive line and lone linebacker, Forte broke into the secondary and put six points on the board.
Could more spread-offense formations pop up in 2009? Absolutely. The receiving targets are somewhat of an enigma as this point, but Devin Hester is expected to pose a deep threat, while Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen can be counted on as solid receiving targets.
So can Matt Forte, who was moved in motion before the play on several occasions last season, leaving Orton with an empty backfield and plenty of passing targets to work with.
So, what does this all mean?
It means that Bears have assembled a set of offensive personnel flexible enough to bluff whenever they chose to, regardless of which hand they wish to play. They can be less one-dimensional. They can be less predictable. They can keep defenses guessing.
The offense changed last season, and they changed for the better. Jay Cutler will change it even more.
If the Bears can manage to put a few more points on the board this season, the odds of a playoff birth will swing significantly in their favor.