The Jay Cutler era began Wednesday much like the Kyle Orton era ended—with quick-hitters to Devin Hester, check-downs to the backs and intermediate passes to the tight ends.
If the first day of OTAs (organized team activities) was any indication, offensive coordinator Ron Turner is in no rush to open up his finesse-passing, West-coast system.
Nor should he be.
The long-term expectation is that Cutler will add a down-field dimension to Turner’s dink-and-dunk passing attack. But Cutler needs time, not only to learn the playbook but also to harness the potential of a receiving corps greener than the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day.
Only two receivers on the roster—Hester and Rashied Davis—caught an NFL pass last season.
But even in power formations, Cutler is a significant upgrade. The play action pass is critical to the Bears' two tight-end sets; and Cutler's superb arm strength and quick feet make him one of the most dangerous play-action passers in the league.
The mere specter of the "heave it to Hester" play will stretch defenses and provide less congested running lanes for running back Matt Forte.
Here is a breakdown of the Bears offensive weapons and how their roles will evolve in the 2009 season.
Forte is coming off a grueling rookie season in which he ranked fourth in the NFL in carries (316) and consistently faced seven and eight-man fronts. He also led the team in catches with 63.
The heavy burden took its toll down the stretch, as Forte’s productivity declined. Bears coaches have said many times that they intend to reduce his workload in ’09, ceding more carries to presumed backup Kevin Jones. The ex-Lion made little impact last season, but is now a full year removed from a knee surgery that perhaps hindered his speed in ’08.
With Cutler stretching the defense, the hope is that Forte improves his numbers while spending more time on the sideline (he was on the field for 89.6 percent of the offensive plays in ’08).
There is no evidence that Hester will emerge as a bona fide No. 1 receiver, or that Earl Bennett and Juaquin Iglesias are upgrades from Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd.
But with a massive quarterback upgrade and a beefed-up pass protection, the potential is there for a vertical expansion of the passing attack.
The additions of free agent Orlando Pace at left tackle and a healthy Chris Williams at right tackle will allow Turner to move the pocket around a bit and mix up protections.
But for Turner to stray far from his quick-hitting passing attack, a couple receivers not named Hester will need to become more viable down-field threats.
At this point, Olsen is the team's second most dangerous big-play receiver behind Hester. He creates mismatches in the open field, whether against slower linebackers or smaller safeties and backs. I expect him to line up in the slot position more often this season.
In two-tight end sets, both he and Desmond Clark will benefit from the incorporation of more play-action and misdirection. Clark will be a popular target in bootlegs, especially around the goal line.
Cutler is supposed to deliver Bears fans from the evils of five-yard outs and hitches. But while optimism springs eternal at Halas Hall, the fact is that not even a Touchdown Jesus towering over Soldier Field can provide an overnight remedy for a receiving corps this raw.
His first season as a Bear may ultimately be defined by his accuracy in the short game and the ability to make quick reads—with the occasional moments of sweet deep-ball salvation.