The Bengals running back and Chargers wide receiver share their thoughts on the 2013 football season and the Super Bowl.
Before the winner is announced at the 3rd Annual NFL Honors Awards, we caught up with the Pepsi NEXT Rookie of the Year finalists Giovani Bernard and Keenan Allen. Head over to NFL.com to cast your vote for one of this year’s five finalists by Tuesday, January 28th, and then tune into the awards show next Saturday, February 1, on FOX to see who takes home the top honor.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals Running Back
Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014
Congrats on an incredible season. What does it mean for you to be nominated for Pepsi’s NEXT Rookie of the Year?
It’s a blessing. I remember growing up and hearing the phrases “rookie of the year,” “player of the year,” and it honestly just blows my mind. It’s still kind of surreal for me to realize that I’m playing in the NFL. So, win or lose, it is definitely a blessing and I’m happy to even be nominated.
Have you seen a lot of your fellow nominees throughout the season?
Yeah, I’ve watched the games the other guys have played and actually played against a couple of them. I know they’ve all had a great rookie season and whoever wins it is very well deserved. I think for the group of us to be nominated is just another form of saying rookies made a huge impact in the NFL this year.
What’s it like to be a rookie for the Bengals in particular? Have the vets pulled any pranks on you?
It always starts with the oldest guy in that position group. I think BenJarvus is one of the older guys, and he’s just not that type of guy who will do the whole rookie prank thing. And believe me, I thank him every day for that! I see some rookies on the defensive side and they had to come out of pockets for a lot of the dinners so I have to also thank BenJarvus for not making me go broke!
How has the Cincinnati crowd welcomed you?
Oh, I love playing at home and having that family. I just love having the home crowd. I love hearing the cheer when we do something good. You know, unfortunately we were that close to staying undefeated at home, but we lost that last playoff game. Funnily enough I remember one time I was in an away game, I can’t remember which one it was, but I scored a touchdown and nobody said anything. I didn’t know if I had scored, I thought something had happened, I just don’t know what happened because the whole place was silent. So you know, I like to play at home and hear the cheers.
You had some really incredible games this season; your two key touchdowns in an early game against the Steelers comes to mind. Is there a specific game or moment that you look back on from this season where you feel like you did the Bengals proud?
Yeah,I’d have to say my second pre-season game against the Titans. I ran the ball pretty well that game and that’s when I felt like I could I really make an impact. I don’t know what it was about that game but I think that from that point on I realized, not every player on the defense side is Superman. Not every player in the NFL is Superman, so you don’t have to shy away from it. So I think I learned a lot from that game, and just kind of took it and just ran with it.
Who were your favorite opponents this season?
Any team that I know somebody else across the ball is always fun to play in. Like, when we played against the Colts, Vontae Davis is a guy that I actually trained with, so it was cool to actually see him play.
As a rookie, did you meet any players this year that you had idolized growing up?
Ray Rice. I was able to get to know him after the Combine. You know, he reached out to me, and that’s a guy I have a lot of respect for and actually a guy a lot of people compare me to. For the most part he’s a real humble guy and he’s a player I’ve watched films on and have definitely looked up to. I’ve played against him twice and I look to have a friendship with him; he’s a good guy.
Any other games that standout?
I mean losing that last game against the Chargers – that was not fun. That’s the main game that still stands out to me. I think, for me, I didn’t want the season to end that early. It is what it is, but for me that’s the one game that I wish I could take back and start all over again. But I guess I can use it as motivation for this off-season to get better, and as a testimony for everyone to get better.
What are some things you’re going to focus on during the off-season to bring it to the next level for the 2014 season?
I hate to limit to one thing, but I try to get better at everything. I know it’s a cliché kind of statement, but I don’t want to slip up on anything. Being more explosive, you know, actually “wall” better at the backfield. I want to improve on all parts of my game because nobody is perfect - unless you’re Peyton Manning or Tom Brady; they’re a different breed.
What are the essentials for a Giovani Bernard Super Bowl party?
I think my Super Bowl party would be a lot of people having a good time; a little trash talking here and there but everybody having a good time. And you know, maybe in the near future the Bengals can make it to the Super Bowl. So, you know what? I’m not even going to be at the party. I’ll be on T.V. and we’ll have the party. So that would be my ideal, when we’re all playing, all having a good time.
Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers Wide Receiver
Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2014
You’ve already won four Pepsi NEXT Rookie of the Week awards - how does it feel to now be nominated for Rookie of the Year?
It feels amazing. The Pepsi NEXT Rookie of the Year Award is such an awesome competition to be part of. I’m definitely honored to be here with these four guys, and I know we’ve all had great seasons so now I’m just hoping that I can come out of this thing on top.
You had fallen in the 2013 NFL draft much later than expected, how does it feel to have this amazing season and prove everyone who passed on you wrong?
Yeah, it’s just what I wanted to do after I got drafted. I was definitely disappointed with everything that went down and it is what it is, but just being able to come out and play my game as well as I thought I could do and prove those teams wrong, I think that speaks for itself.
The stats certainly speak to it: 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Is there a specific game that stands out to you from this season?
I mean, I love playing at home but I’ve got to say that playing at Denver was fun. Even though we didn’t win, both the regular season and postseason games there were great. The crowd was fun and had a lot of energy, which makes for a much better game. If I’ve got to narrow it down to a specific moment, it has to be taking that pass from Philip Rivers and hurdling over defender Kayvon Webster to a touchdown.
What does Philip Rivers bring to your game?
He brings a lot. Confidence is one point in particular that I have to mention, just because of how much confidence he has in me. He’s a veteran so I think that it speaks volumes for what he was able to do for me, put me in the right positions to make big plays – and not just for me, for the entire offensive line, the running backs. The pass protection and everything that he did really helped my game, even the simple fact that I didn’t have to think as much. Overall, Philip was definitely great for our offense.
With you, the Chargers qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2009. After an amazing postseason run, what do you think the team has to do to improve next season?
We plan to do nothing but get better. Coach McCoy has certainly put the stepping stones in place for this team and we definitely don’t want to go down from here. This season helped set the bar. We know what we can do and we know what to expect, so I think the sky is the limit for us. Hopefully we come out on top next year and the dice keeps rolling.
What are your personal goals for the offseason, both physically and mentally, to help you come back as a stronger wide receiver in 2014?
In terms of physical training, I definitely want to get stronger and faster. I think that would help my game out a lot just in terms of being a better deep threat down the field for Philip. I’ll be doing a lot of mental preparation as well. I see the other guys and the vets out there who know the game so well; it’s pretty easy for them. So if I am able to gain the knowledge that guys like Philip, Antonio Gates, and Eric Weddle have, then I think I should be pretty good.
Speaking of vets, was there anyone you met or played with this year who you’ve been a longtime fan of, or who made a big impression on you?
Yeah, definitely. Charles Woodson of the Oakland Raiders has always been an idol of mine. I looked up to him my whole life, ever since I saw him play, and then being able to play aside from him this season, that was definitely fun. Then in the playoff game against the Broncos, Champ Bailey was out there with me and he’s just a legend. So, guys like that who have been in the game a long time and know the game and know how to play the game very well - those are the players I love to meet on the field.
Now that Bailey finally gets his Super Bowl shot, do you think him and the Broncos will come out on top?
I don’t have any predictions in terms of the score, but I’ll be watching, and I’m definitely going to stick with the AFC team, the Broncos.
In an interview you gave last year you mentioned that after you didn’t start the first game with the Chargers you considered going back to school. Now, as a Pepsi NEXT Rookie of the Year nominee, aren’t you glad you didn’t?
Ha, well the season turned out to be incredibly fun and great, obviously. You know, patience is a virtue and just sticking to what you know best, that’s important. Football is what I’ve been doing my whole life, so just not giving up on my dreams and sticking to it and working day to day and hoping that my opportunity would come, that’s basically what it was and I’m glad it came and I was able to make the best of it.
The 3rd Annual NFL Honors airs Saturday, February 1, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.
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