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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Stating the case for Bengals' Gio Bernard

By Coley Harvey


CINCINNATI -- OK, might as well come out and admit it.

As if this two-week-old column from the Bengals' Monday night win over Pittsburgh wasn't any indication, I am an unapologetic Giovani Bernard fan.

I'll say that one more time (with feeling): I am a Giovani Bernard fan.

I guess that makes me ... human?

Because I always have taken my credibility as a sports journalist seriously and since I value my sense of objectivity to the nth degree, I won't go any further than that. But honestly, am I saying anything that's any different from what anybody else, fans and sportswriters alike, have been saying since the preseason?

Yeah, didn't think so.

ESPN fantasy expert Christopher Harris has been among those stating a case for Bernard since April. Before the back even suited up for rookie camp, Harris was tabbing him as a player fantasy owners would want to keep in mind (see above video). The fact that Bernard was splitting carries with BenJarvus Green-Ellis originally worried Harris that Bernard, by fantasy standards, wouldn't be able to produce this year.

But as we've seen, even with a running back rotation the Bengals have no plans of straying from, Bernard has been productive not only in fantasy, but in real life, too. And while Green-Ellis may not be exactly where the Bengals would like him statistically, he hasn't played all that poorly in the rotation himself, either.

When I say I'm a fan of Bernard, I'm specifically referring to the way he plays. He could be in Canada, Poland, Iceland or on Mars, and I'd still watch him. It's been that way for me since  he burst on the college scene as a redshirt freshman at North Carolina in 2011, fresh off a knee injury that shelved him the year before. At the time, I was also in ACC country, working in my previous journalistic life as a beat writer covering football at Florida State. In addition to my duties covering the Seminoles, I also was in my fourth year serving on a panel that selected the ACC's players of the week. Late every Saturday and all day on Sundays that season, my jaw would drop whenever I caught another Bernard highlight-reel run on television or read his stats ahead of my vote the following Monday morning.

That season, the numbers were staggering. In one game, he had 24 carries. In the next, 25. A week later, he had 27 for 109 yards rushing and nine receptions. On offense alone, he touched the ball 38 times in that single game. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, it was one they ended up losing.

The next year, the numbers were even more mind-boggling.  In one conference game, he averaged 11.4 yards per carry, rushing 23 times for 262 yards. In another, he torched a fast, but not very good, Miami defense for 177 yards and a pair of rushing scores. His longest runs of the year spanned 38, 42, 59, 62 and 68 yards. He also had receptions of 36, 39 and 78 yards, and returned two punts for touchdowns, including one against nemesis NC State to preserve the Tar Heels' first win in the rivalry in five seasons.

To call him explosive in college would have been a gross understatement. It would have been the equivalent of comparing a block of C4 to a Fourth of July sparkler. He wasn't just dynamic, he was a true game-changer.

So that's the reason, as much as Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has grown tired of hearing it, the calls for more touches for Bernard will continue.

Through his first three games in Cincinnati, the rookie has averaged just 9.3 touches per game. He's rushed 22 times and caught six passes. Two of those receptions have been among Cincinnati's most pivotal plays of the young season. The first resulted in a 27-yard touchdown. It came after he caught a short screen near the line of scrimmage and accelerated past the secondary with his speed.

His second big reception was a 31-yard haul that took Cincinnati from the shadows of its own end zone and helped set up a quick score that cut deeply into a Green Bay lead.

Although Bernard's touches have increased, going up from five in Week 1 to nine in Week 2 and to 14 in Week 3, for some, that still doesn't appear to be enough. Maybe when the Bengals face Cleveland on Sunday, Bernard fans ought to hope they end up in the red zone often.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Bernard has averaged 3.0 yards before contact, compared to the 1.0 that Green-Ellis has averaged this season. The mostly edge-rushing Bernard also is averaging 2.0 yards after contact, compared to the 1.8 the more physical, interior-rushing Green-Ellis is averaging. Harris believes that's one reason why the Bengals used Bernard regularly in red zone scenarios last weekend.

The fact that Bernard has shown good hands and an ability to run after the catch and after contact bodes well for quarterback Andy Dalton, who has 36 passing touchdowns while in the red zone in the the last two-plus seasons.

Bernard has been stating his own case the last three weeks, but hopefully you now see that he isn't a sudden phenomenon. Once more of the offense is put in his hands, look out. I guarantee I won't be the only one proclaiming Giovani Bernard fandom.