It has been quite a few years since the Bears playbook changed significantly.
Not since the Bears became one of the first teams to use the wide receiver screen as a significant portion of the offense has Chicago truly surprised their opponents.
Sure, there have been wrinkles, such as adding Devin Hester as a receiver with the hope that his speed translated from special teams to the passing game.
But for the most part, Chicago has been the Chicago of old: Run on first down, run or short pass on second down, run or long pass on third down, and hope to do it again.
Ron Turner may be many things; groundbreaking is not one of them.
Yet with the new personnel, the stagnant swamp that was the Bear’s playbook could see a significant spring cleaning this season.
Channeling Bill Walsh
Turner can start simple: Throw more on first down.
It isn’t that the Bears never throw on first down, but when they do it seems to surprise their own players as much as the defense.
With Jay Cutler coming on board, the Bears now have a stronger, more accurate arm in the pocket. Cutler completed 62.3 percent of his passes last season and did even better than that when throwing on first down.
He can do the same for the Bears by connecting with a slot receiver cutting across the middle.
Normally, this would seem the wrong way to go for the Bears. They haven’t had the right kind of receiver to do this.
But this job doesn’t call for the flashy No. 1 wide out that the team is still lacking. This job calls for a different set of skills. Chicago now has two receivers on its roster that fit the bill.
The first is second-year receiver Earl Bennett, still trying to establish himself with the team.
Never one to shy from contact, Bennett could be the surprise weapon for the Bears in this role. After all, he has already caught passes from Cutler once before back at Vanderbilt.
The other receiver who can help in this role is Juaquin Iglesias who the Bears added in the third round of this year’s draft.
The former Oklahoma Sooner doesn’t have the skills to go deep on the NFL level, but he does have the ability to bang across the middle. Going up against linebackers will be a much better experience for Iglesias that trying to beat NFL corners and safeties.
Sure, this seems like the West Coast offense in its most simplistic form—the way Bill Walsh first envisioned it—but it is the West Coast offense unlike the Bears have ever run it.
Open up the rest of the offense
The change in first-down attack will allow Chicago to use the rush more effectively.
The key to getting the most out of Matt Forte is not running him more; too many backs have been run into the ground that way.
Instead, Forte will gain strength by making the defense think twice about focusing all their effort on the run. Having that first down pass attack will do just that.
Forte was able to gain a little more than four yards per rush on second and long when the defense knew he was coming. There is no telling how well he can do without the defense’s front seven stacked against him.
The extra carries for Forte will come, but they are better utilized after the Bears are out to a lead rather than as the main thrust of the attack.
Another reason the Bears struggled so often on offense last season was that they were locked into a set of plays keeping them within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Cutler didn’t have that issue with the Broncos. Denver attempted to break out of that zone about 15 times per contest in 2008.
The lack of a star receiver will hurt Chicago as they go deep, but unknown players have stepped up for the Bears in this spot before. Now the leading receiver in Minnesota, Bernard Berrian was nothing before becoming a long target for Chicago.
And yes, the Bronco receivers are an upgrade from what Chicago has on its roster, but improving on Orton’s 35 percent completion rate over 10 yards isn’t too much to ask. Coming anywhere close to Cutler’s 46 percent mark would be cause for open celebration in the streets.
A new paradigm
At times last season, Chicago’s offense seemed as if it were on life support. Fans lamented the play calling that left them scratching their heads and yelling at their televisions. Were it not for timely turnovers, the Bears would not have sniffed 9-7.
But Jay Cutler has found a way to jump start the heart of not only a city but also his team, igniting their hopes with a strong first practice.
Adding a new passer alone is not the right answer. Chicago needs to make changes that go beyond the new man behind center. They have to utilize pieces of the team that have gone idle for too long.
Yes, it is time for a new paradigm at Soldier Field, one that will keep fans jumping out of their seats for the right reason, like a long touchdown set up by a pass on first down.