Bernard looked amused as he answered questions about getting 20 touches a game with Joe Mixon out with a knee injury. The questions almost seemed to imply that the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Bernard would break if he reached that threshold.
"I mean, I'm not like an ice cube. It's not like I'm going to die or something. It's football,” Bernard said. “Guys are going to go down and the next man has to step up at the end of the day."
Bernard hasn’t been the typical bell-cow running back during his six seasons in Cincinnati, but he hasn’t been asked to be that guy. One of the reasons he has only three games with at least 20 carries is because he always has been paired with another back, whether that be BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2013, Jeremy Hill from 2014-2017, or Mixon.
But as Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was quick to point out, one of those games came against Detroit late last season when Mixon was injured after just a few snaps. Bernard rushed 23 times for 116 yards and caught seven passes for 52 yards.
While Lazor would love to have the luxury of giving Bernard a breather, the options are thin. Tra Carson was waived after he was injured in practice on Monday, and rookie Mark Walton lacks experience. The Bengals signed veteran Thomas Rawls on Wednesday, but he’ll be trying to get up to speed this week.
That means while Mixon is out, everyone is going to look to the veteran, and they have no problem with that.
“As long as he’s fine, you’re fine. If you look at the law of averages, what can a back really handle in a game, there is clearly a threshold,” Lazor said. “Most games you should consider it’s going to take more than one back. I think it’s fair. But I don’t look at Gio any differently. To me the guy is a warrior. Coming off the knee surgery two years ago and what he did last year, I just think he’s a warrior. ...
“He’s really physically unique being able to do that with his stature, to play the way he plays. He finishes runs, he doesn’t run out of bounds, he doesn’t go down easily. I think he’s a warrior. I have great respect for him. Do we have to be smart with him? Absolutely. But no different than with any starting running back.”
Bernard has always beaten the odds. He bounced back from a torn ACL just days into practice during his freshman year at North Carolina to lead the team in rushing the next two seasons, regularly touching the ball 30 or more times. Bernard rushed for more than 1,200 yards for two straight seasons and had 852 career receiving yards, along with six receiving touchdowns.
Bernard then tore his other ACL late into the 2016 season while with the Bengals. By training camp he was making his cuts again as if the knee injury had never happened.
His true toughness is often understated.
“He may be 5-8, 200, but he’s about 6-4, 250 in heart,” Bengals running backs coach Kyle Caskey said. “He’s one of those guys that’s going to give you everything he has. And he’s going to be a lot more productive and explosive than you think he’s going to be with his size.”
The Bengals are often at their best when Bernard is able to complement another back, especially with his skill in the screen game. But don’t count him out as a between-the-tackles runner.
“They think he’s just a run-around-people-in-space kind of guy,” Caskey said. “He can run between the tackles. I don’t put him into any kind of box and say, ‘This is what he is.’ He can do it all, and if you go back and look over time, he has done it all. We’ve just got to trust that’s what he’s going to do, and the other guys can just keep coming along behind him. We’ll be fine.”
The Bengals will lose the power Mixon brought with his runs and the dynamic the two brought when deployed interchangeably in the run and pass game. It's definitely a big loss for Cincinnati, but Bernard thinks the offense won’t change much otherwise.
“You don't try to switch up your whole offense -- you just plug and play,” Bernard said. “I think that's something that Coach Lazor has done. If one guy goes down, we don't switch everything up. We just put the next man up and continue to doing what we do.”
He added: “I prepare exactly the same each and every week whether I know I'm getting the ball or not. It doesn't change for me. I feel like people are freaking out, but my goodness, it's football. Guys are going to go down and the next man has to step up and just be prepared.”