Giovani Bernard's first three NFL seasons were all winning campaigns enjoyed at the end of Cincinnati's peak in the Marvin Lewis era.
Now entering his ninth professional season, Bernard has encountered a fresh source of invigoration, starting with a new uniform. While the Bengals are indeed changing their look for 2021, Bernard's new duds aren't orange and black, but red and pewter -- the clothing of the defending Super Bowl champions.
A Lombardi Trophy brings new expectations, which practically tackled Bernard upon arrival.
"You can already feel the difference, just that atmosphere as soon as I walked in the building," Bernard said of his first days with the Buccaneers. "You can tell there's an excitement still buzzing. Obviously, you guys won the Super Bowl last year, but you can kind of tell nobody's kind of let their guard down. Everybody's excited for that next run and I'm just excited to be a part of that."
Bernard's career began with three straight double-digit-win seasons in Cincinnati and three postseason appearances, but his Bengals never won a playoff game. Since that final postseason bid in 2015, the Bengals fell off dramatically, never finishing better than 7-9 and descending to the very bottom of the NFL in 2019.
During that time, Bernard remained the steady satellite back who contributed in the running and passing game, never complaining but also likely coming to understand his reality. It wouldn't be one with Super Bowl contention in the immediate future. At 29 years old and heading to free agency, the time had arrived to find a better opportunity elsewhere, leading him to Tampa, where he'll join a backfield that includes Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette.
In that group, Bernard stands to make an impact as a pass-catching back with the potential to replicate production once seen from James White when he teamed with Tom Brady in New England. But for Bernard, that possibility didn't matter as much as being part of a winner -- and being teammates with Brady -- did.
"Being able to work with Tom (Brady), that in itself was something that was really, really tough for me to pass up on, just to be able to build that relationship with him," Bernard explained. "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 will always want to be an every-down back, so for me, it's not just about the passing. For me, I really take into account the blocking, that's a huge thing. Obviously, you want to be able to protect that investment behind you. I've always really relied on that.
"As far as Tom throwing the ball to the running back, that's obviously a huge thing and something I've done throughout my career. You saw what he's done in New England with James White. That's a very close friend of mine. I grew up with James over in Fort Lauderdale at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, so a very close relationship with him. I've obviously talked with him when I was picking the team that I wanted to go to. He had only great things to say about Tom and his work ethic and everybody knows that. For me, it was a no-brainer."
Tampa isn't quite attempting to build a culture of winning as it is trying to sustain it after catching fire down the stretch in 2020 and riding that hot streak to a blowout win in Super Bowl LV. Bernard sees himself as a key piece in an effort to make it two straight titles in 2021, and it doesn't matter to him how he contributes as long as his team is stacking wins.
"The thing for me when I did speak with the coaches throughout this free agency, it wasn't so much the role that I would take on that attracted me. It wasn't like, 'Hey, we're gonna have you do this and do that or whatever, this and this and that,'" Bernard said. "For me, it was always about the culture that the coach was trying to build and the players in the locker room because at the end of the day that's what's really gonna ride you throughout the season. The roles, yeah, that's part of the decision, but I think the biggest factor for me was just what I saw, what these guys are continuing to try to build here in Tampa."
Sustaining the winning culture would mean another playoff appearance -- perhaps via an NFC South title after riding a wild-card berth to a Super Bowl bid in 2020 -- and a second straight deep run. Bernard was sold by the potential of achieving such success in Tampa, his first new home in his NFL career.
We're still months out from the start of the regular season, but on paper, Bernard has positioned himself nicely. Now it's just a matter of ramping up toward another pursuit of a title.