There once was a dog named Sam. Sam was a Labrador retriever, formerly of the black variety before age speckled his face with gray fur. He no longer did much retrieving but rather chose to nuzzle anyone that reached out a hand (assuming he could see the hand, of course.) In his old age, he had been donated to an assisted living facility, a place where he could live out his remaining years keeping the senior citizens of Weirton, West Virginia happy. Thing is, old people give zero shits about the health of dogs and Sam was so old (and, ya know, a dog) that he wasn’t going to NOT eat the whole sausages and slices of apple pie slipped to him by some not-so-sly nonagenarians. For a few months, Sam waddled around the facility in Gloopian fashion, his belly sweeping crumbs off the carpet. Then, he drifted off into a peaceful sleep, likely with spaghetti sauce and/or chocolate cake on his snout.
When the Bengals released BenJarvus Green-Ellis in their final roster cuts, I couldn’t help but think of ol’ Sam. It was evident from the start of last year that Green-Ellis was no longer able to be a feature back—that’s why the team invested a second round pick in Giovani Bernard in 2013. But the drop off was more precipitous than anyone could have imagined. Green-Ellis had 220 carries in 2013 and only two went for 15+ yards. It was clear he didn’t have much time left in the NFL and former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden made sure of that when he kept feeding him the ball, despite obvious signs of ineffectiveness.
Much has been made about Andy Dalton’s contract extension and the millions of dollars that go along with it. But on the field, the talk is that there will be a renewed commitment to the run game under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. (Because why should the highest paid, most important player on the team have to carry more of a burden after signing a big deal?)
The biggest beneficiary of rushing re-emphasis is Giovani Bernard, who dazzled at times last year with one of the quickest bursts in the league. Last year, his playing time and touches were maddeningly inconsistent, due in large part to Gruden’s need to pound the ball with Green-Ellis. Bernard didn’t have two straight games where he played at least 55% of the offensive snaps until weeks 14 and 15. Yet there were only five regular season games where Bernard didn’t either have a 15+ yard run or a 20+ yard reception.
The elephant in the room when discussing Bernard is his size. Listed at 5-9, 209 pounds on the Bengals site, he is not what people think of as a workhorse running back. But the idea of a workhorse running back is antiquated. The position has shifted from an emphasis on power and strength to speed and elusiveness. Running backs built like Gio Bernard, ones that are able to make people miss and catch passes, are the new workhorses of the league.
Jackson seems to show no signs of worrying about Bernard’s durability and all signs point to an uptick in carries and receptions. But how much of an increase remains to be seen. However, we may be able to compare the situation to the one Jackson found himself in as offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders in 2010. That year, Jackson leaned on a 23-year-old running back with some durability issues named Darren McFadden.
Granted, McFadden and Bernard are different types of players. McFadden is a tall runner, built more like a sprinter. Also, he is made of balsa wood, making him far less durable than Bernard (whom I’d liken to more of a hickory). But the point in comparing the two seasons is this: It is not unreasonable at all to see that sort of workload for Bernard. He will likely not get as many carries on a per game basis as McFadden did—replacing those instead with receptions—but the total touches (20.8 per game for McFadden) doesn’t seem farfetched.
The only way Bernard wouldn’t approach the 20-touch per-game threshold would be if rookie Jeremy Hill became more of a fixture early in the season than Bernard did as a rookie. Hill, a much bigger back at 6-1, 238 pounds, was drafted to play. Which is cool, because he can do things like this.
(For more running back split info, check out the guys at Cincy Jungle.)
If the Bengals are to be successful running the ball, the offensive line will need to maintain solid play from last year with a few new pieces. Gone is Anthony Collins, who played exceptionally well at left tackle when Clint Boling went down with an injury, forcing Andrew Whitworth to play left guard. Rookie Russell Bodine takes over as the starting center, replacing Kyle Cook, the weakest leak in the line last year. Cook’s Pro Football Focus rating was -2.8, a significant drop off from the next worst offensive lineman. (That would be Clint Boling at +6.0, a number that would have been better had he not missed the last five games of the year.)
This new commitment to running the ball makes sense for the Bengals. The pass-happy offense under Gruden was great for putting up statistics, but not so great in important games. Something needs to change in order for Andy Dalton & Co. to actually win a playoff game. After all, isn’t insanity repeating the same thing and expecting different results? With this new philosophy, perhaps in January Bengals fans will no longer be lamenting Dalton’s inability to perform in playoff games, but rather praising the ability of Bernard and Hill to wear down opposing defenses.
To read Flango’s preview for the Bengals 2014 defense and life without Mike Zimmer, click here.