How Much Better Has Gio Bernard Been Than Jeremy Hill This Season?

Hill and Bernard have split time at running back, but one has consistently outperformed the other.

It’s been an unexpected year for the Cincinnati Bengals.

After having some signs pointing toward regression in 2015, the Bengals started the season off 8-0. Even more unexpected after that start was the 10-6 loss to the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.

Heading into that game, just about everything had been working for Cincinnati this season. The defense had looked like one of the league’s best units -- to be fair, still looked like that on Monday while only giving up a field goal and a ridiculous touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins -- and the sum of all of the parts on offense had come together to make life easier on all the individual parts.

Along that offense has been one of the biggest mysteries of the 2015 season, and it has nothing to do with Andy Dalton. Behind him in the backfield has been a one-sided timeshare between running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill that the Bengals are convinced shouldn’t be one-sided at all.

Hill has started all nine games for the Bengals thus far in 2015, and the coaching staff has continued to back the second-year player in that role.

The problem there is Hill has significantly been the worse player of the two at running back this season.

Splitting the Difference

According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, Bernard has been one of the most efficient running backs in football on a per-carry basis. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.

Among backs with at least 40 carries this season, only Buffalo’s Karlos Williams and New England’s Dion Lewis have a higher Rushing NEP per carry than Bernard. However, the Cincinnati back has carried the ball quite a bit more than those two players.

On the other side of the split, Hill has been one of the worst backs on a per-carry basis. Among 58 running backs with at least 40 carries this season, Hill ranks 46th. Among more high volume backs it’s even worse. Only two backs with at least 100 carries have a lower Rushing NEP per carry than Hill, who has carried the ball 111 times.

There’s a 0.27 difference between Bernard and Hill in Rushing NEP per carry this season, and there’s no bigger disparity in the league between two running backs sharing a considerable amount of time in the backfield. For some context, that difference would be the second most efficient back in the league this season between Williams (0.32) and Lewis (0.19).

It would appear strange for two backs in the same system behind the same offensive line could perform so differently, though it has oddly been common this season. Still, the difference in Rushing NEP per carry between the Cincinnati duo is bigger than that between Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon in San Diego (0.18), Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson in Denver (0.17) and Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray in Philadelphia (0.14).

There is one backfield with a bigger production split, which is between Todd Gurley and Tre Mason in St. Louis at a staggering 0.42, but with an 86-carry difference between the two players, we can hardly consider that a timeshare.

Carrying the Load

Despite this clear divide in production, the Bengals have insisted on continuing to give Hill the starts and the carries. The staff continues to be optimistic on Hill’s chances of succeeding, and at the start of the month offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told reporters the “arrow is pointing up” for Hill, though since that statement he’s rushed 22 times for 67 yards.

Cincinnati might be right to have some trust in Hill, though.

Not only did he play well in his rookie season last year, but also the production split between these two backs was the exact opposite in 2014. Last year among running backs with at least 40 carries, Hill ranked ninth in Rushing NEP per attempt at 0.09 with 222 carries and Bernard ranked 40th among the 79 backs to fit the qualifications at -0.04 on 168 carries, a difference of 0.13.

Hill, though, just doesn’t look like the same running back he did last season, and there’s not much of a reason for it. As far as we know there’s been no injury since he’s only been listed on the team’s injury report once -- listed as probable before a Week 5 game against Seattle -- though NFL injury reports have recently become as useful as ones in the NHL that give no more information than “lower body injury” for a torn ACL.

Whatever is going on with Hill, there’s a hesitance to his game that was not there during his productive rookie season. It might be something we never figure out, it might be something even the Bengals haven’t figured out and the reason for the continued sense of optimism.

It’s not that the Bengals have completely been blind to the difference between the two backs this season. While Hill technically gets the starts and has the most carries on the season, Bernard has out-snapped Hill in five of Cincinnati’s nine games, including the past two consecutive games and a 49 to 20 split in favor of Bernard on Monday night. He’s also been more involved in the passing game, getting 35 targets this season, compared to Hill’s 9.

Part of this has been when Bernard has gotten the ball, too. When the Bengals get into the red zone, Bernard has taken the lead on touches and production. He’s out-carried Hill inside the opponent’s 20-yard line 25 to 19 and has significantly outrushed him in yards 141 to 45 despite seeing similar situations for carries. However, Hill does have the edge in touchdowns 5 to 2, along with one receiving touchdown -- though neither Hill nor Bernard have been heavily involved in the passing game inside the 20.

As the Bengals get closer to the playoffs and a little more importance is put on the result of these games for playoff seeding, there could be a bigger shift towards Bernard if the production remains the same.

Maybe something will click for Hill, he’ll again perform like the back he was last season, and the Bengals will gain another useful weapon in an offense that already ranks third in Adjusted NEP per play. But for now, the wide difference in play is too big to ignore.