TAMPA — Giovani Bernard missed the confetti and the champagne but could still feel the intoxication of the Bucs winning Super Bowl 55 when he arrived at the AdventHealth Training Center on Wednesday.
The long-time Bengals running back, who signed a one-year contract as a free agent, said he wants to help become part of the Bucs’ quest to go back-to-back and defend their NFL title.
“I’m really excited to join this organization,” Bernard said. “Just to be here. You can already feel the difference and just that atmosphere. As soon as I walked in that building, whether that’s facility staff or whether that’s the cooks or the guys in the training room, just to everybody here. There’s still an excitement. It’s still buzzing.
“Obviously, you guys won the Super Bowl last year, but you can kind of tell that nobody has kind of let their guard down. Everybody is excited for that next run, and I’m just excited to be a part of that.”
Bernard, 29, played all eight of his NFL seasons with the Bengals until he was released last month. A second-round pick out of North Carolina in 2013, Bernard appeared in 115 games with 30 starts and rushed for 3,697 yards and 22 touchdowns. His 342 receptions are the most by a running back in Bengals’ history.
In joining the Bucs, the former North Carolina running back returns to his home state, where he played at Ft. Lauderdale Thomas Aquinas.
In fact, he spoke with Patriots running back James White, his friend since middle school and a high school teammate, about signing with the Bucs to join quarterback Tom Brady.
“Obviously, just being able to work with Tom ... that in itself is something that was really, really tough for me to pass up on,” Bernard said. “Just to really be able to build that relationship with him. Obviously, you see the things he’s done throughout his career, coming here last year and doing what he did with the team and the supporting cast.
“His reliance on the running back is huge, and I’m sure that’s how it is across the league. Me, personally, I feel like I always want to be an every-down back. For me, it’s not just about the passing. For me, I really take into account the blocking. That’s a huge thing.”
The Bucs led the league with 17 dropped passes by running backs last season, according to Fox Sports.
Neither Ronald Jones (five drops in 42 targets) nor Leonard Fournette (seven drops in 47 targets) are natural pass-catchers. Neither player can run routes or block as well as Bernard, who at minimum will become the team’s third-down back.
Bernard said he remains uncertain of his role, making it clear he wasn’t signed because the Bucs’ current running backs aren’t able to do it all.
“For me to be able to join that group, it’s not about, hey, I want to take these roles away from these guys, it’s more about I just want to fill in where I can help,” he said.
But there clearly was a reason both Brady and coach Bruce Arians called Bernard to recruit him to Tampa Bay.
In addition to his ability to run routes and catch the football, Bernard also is one of the league’s best at protecting the passer. When your quarterback will be 44 in August and is the greatest of all time, you can’t afford any mistakes.
“Part of the entire thing about it is you have an investment behind you,” Bernard said. “I didn’t want somebody to hit my quarterback and it be on my time,” Bernard said.
Bernard grew up a Bucs fan, and there is a picture of him on social media as a kid wearing the jersey of running back Warrick Dunn, who he tried to emulate both on and off the field.
But Bernard’s desire to be with a winner is undeniable. The Bengals lost in the wild-card playoff round in each of his first three seasons. Since then, he has been part of losing teams for five consecutive years.
“My past couple years has been really tough mentally for me, and that’s just how it is,” Bernard said.
“I may as well just attach myself to the guys who have already won it and just follow their footsteps.”
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