Rookie running back Jeremy Hill is finding his stride.
Giovani Bernard is on pace for 328 carries and rookie running back Jeremy Hill is ticketed for 152 for a total of 480 and it would be hard to believe that pace is going to stand.
It would dwarf the most runs ever by two Bengals backs, 405 by Corey Dillon (315) and Brandon Bennett (90) in 2000 and the 385 of the legendary 1988 Super Bowl backfield of James Brooks (182) and Ickey Woods (203). Dillon was a one-man show, a borderline Hall-of-Famer. Brooks and Woods were a one-year comet. Many tandems were formed out of of necessity. Some were matched with up-and-coming kids and vets on the way out. It's been hard to find two backs together in the Marvin Lewis. Maybe the comet is on a return 26-year trip.
For a little historical perspective, we turn to former Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, who coached most of the tandems during his 29 years on the job. Now a fan, he's praising the work of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and running backs coach Kyle Caskey in their first seasons.
In the wake of last Sunday's double team of Atlanta in which Bernard (27-90) and Hill (15-74) combined for 164 yards on 42 carries, Anderson the fan is pretty excited.
"It does excite me because of what they bring to the team," said Anderson after watching Wednesday's practice. "Both guys are showing they can not only run it, but they also have the ability to catch it and they not only can catch it, but they can make runs after the catch. Their creativity is a key factor in what's been going on. When you have weapons where anytime a guy can get the ball and they can take it to the house, it makes you feel good."
The 6-1, 230-pound Hill is rapidly becoming a media favorite. He's already unveiled a touchdown dance, he's pluming Twitter for a nickname of the emerging 1-2 punch, and he's flogging himself for having only a 4.9 yards per carry average on 19 attempts because his goal is seven yards per carry.
"I got to bust one. It's been what? Six games now since preseason. I got to hit one on the second level," Hill said. "I think that would help the average out a lot. That's what coach Hue has been saying will help the running backs average. I think we weren't where we wanted. He wants us at 4.5. We weren't quite there yet last game (3.8) we got to get one on the second level and make a guy miss and score a big one I think that will help the average out a lot.
"I think last game I was just picking my spots, getting the tough four and five, extending the drive, doing the four-minute drill. I'm going to do that every time," Hill said. "That's for the team, I'm not going to be selfish and try to make something happen or do something too extreme. I just get the tough four or five. It will come, man. The more touches you get the opportunity will come."
He's a big fan of his backfield mate and calls the 5-9, 205-pound Bernard "one of the toughest backs I've ever been around." He recalled what he thought last season when he watched Bernard's surreal 35-yard reverse-the-field run in which every Miami defender seemingly missed him twice.
"That's not supposed to be happening in the NFL. That gets preaches since high school," Hill said. "You can't reverse fields, you are not supposed to do that. That's not supposed to work. Then it goes to their toughness. A guy like that refuses to go down. He put in his mind he's going to reverse the field and make something happen then that's what's going to happen. It just goes to show."
They're saying some of the same things about Hill. He's not only tough, but he can juke, as evidenced by his 18-yard catch-and-run last Sunday. He also says he can hurdle like Bernard did on a 24-yard catch.
"Most definitely,' Hill said when asked if he can jump over anybody. "I've showed a few hurdles before. I try not to bring it out too often. I will show it one time."
That agility is one of the reasons why Jackson rated him where he did when the Bengals were looking at big backs. The Bengals draft room had high grades on both Hill and Ohio State's Carlos Hyde and went with Hill in the second round.
"To play in our system you have to be able to do a lot of things and do a lot of things well and the first thing you have to be able to do is pass protect," Jackson said. "Then after that we drafted you because you can run and after that you have to be smart enough to handle the things we do and he's done a great job."
Jackson isn't putting any numbers out there for carries. It goes from series to series. That's why he calls plays on the sidelines. So he can sense the ebb and flow of the game.
"It's the way things unfold. But Gio is the starting tailback on this football team. So at the end of the day, he's going to get some chances that maybe everybody else doesn't get until he proves that he can't or the other guy proves that he's better. That's the only way to do it," Jackson said. "I don't have a number. It's how the game is flowing and how the guys are flowing in the game…And the first game I didn't do it as well. I'll be the first to tell you I could have done it better. But last week I think I improved in that area, making sure (Hill) was out there and he made some plays. My comfortability with him, I had to talk to myself about. You have to do that. When you've been around a guy like Gio and his talents and what he's able to bring to the team, you get used to that. But the other guy's very talented, too. That's why we drafted him… whatever their name is, whatever it is they want to (call) themselves after, they're just a tandem."
One name he wants no part of is one that surfaced the other day as a potential for the backfield: Hue Jack City.
"That won't happen. That's an old name. That name's over with," Jackson said. "That name has to RIP. May that name rest in peace. That name is gone."
Anderson has seen a lot of tandems come and go. Only two in the Lewis era each went for at least 150 attempts, the injured Rudi Johnson (170) and backup Kenny Watson (178), and last year with the rookie Bernard (170) and the veteran Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis (220). When Johnson rushed for 2.9 yards per carry and Green-Ellis 3.4 while their mates went for over four per, they were gone the next year.
No one beats Brooks and Woods. But there is also a big what-If. Dillon, the club's all-time leading rusher, and Ki-Jana Carter, their star-crossed No. 1 overall pick, only played 18 games together because of Carter's injuries that limited him to four games in 1998 and 1999. Injuries also made you wonder what might have happened with Chris Perry and Rudi Johnson.
"Those guys are like these guys. They were born and bred here," Anderson said. "We never really got a chance to see how dynamic Ki-Jana and Corey could have been together."
Brooks and Woods were dynamic for only a year. But it was good enough for a Super Bowl. These kids must be far away from that, right?
"All you've got to do," Anderson said, "is get to the show."