1) Gio! I went to the first Bengals training camp practice of the season, on Friday. I walked from my house to Paul Brown Stadium, so not only did I not use my own gas, but I didn't use any.
I did take a picture. Training camp pictures are obligatory.
Lots of stuff happened on day one. Some offensive lineman whose name is inconsequential (meaning, that I've forgotten it and don't feel like looking it up) stretched wearing the number 77 - Andrew Whitworth's old number - and I was taken aback because I thought for a tiny fraction of a second "Whit's back! Not only do I not have to watch Cedtic Ogbuehi play right tackle, but media members get their go-to quote back!"
Alas, it was not meant to be.
I watched a special teams drill where players had their arms draped across a long, horizontal bar, which made them look like they were running from crucifixion.
I heard a fan yell toward Andy Dalton "you're no Boomer," which such an incredibly dumb thing to yell that I felt tempted to turn around, find the guy who yelled it, and punch him in the throat.
I engaged James Rapien in a loud discussion about how good the Bengals would be. I have them at roughly nine wins, James is more optimistic and has them at 11, and then I watched as everyone near us slowly ambled as far away from us as possible. I don't blame them.
I watched as Tony Pike showed off his new Under Armour outfit while keeping all the cold drinks to himself.
And I watched Giovani Bernard. This was the most significant thing I saw.
Modern medical and rehabilitation advances have gotten to the point where we almost take them for granted, and so the mere fact that Gio was on the field might not be that huge of a deal to you. But the fact that just a little over eight months after he left a game with an ACL injury that would require surgery, there he was on the field doing Gio Bernard things, is really, really remarkable.
And a damn good sign for the Bengals.
The Bengals have weapons. Tons of weapons. An enviable group of guys that give them the potential to have one of the most diverse and explosive offenses in the league. Health is a big part of that potential becoming reality, as is quality blocking, good quarterback play, and having an offensive coordinator that doesn't screw it up. With all of the talent they have, it's easy to lose sight of the things that Bernard can do, and the production this team could get from him given how many different things they could be able to do.
And then you remember that in each of his two injury-free seasons, Gio piled up more than 1200 yards from scrimmage. You recall how in 2015, he greatly out-performed Jeremy Hill running the ball, and was a bigger part of the passing game than Mohamed Sanu. You remember how his work in short-yardage situations went beyond his reputation as being a solely in-space playmaker, and how adept he is at blitz-pickup.
It is fair to wonder if last November's ACL tear will compromise his effectiveness this season, but the very, very early returns on Friday were encouraging. Gio didn't look like a man mere months removed from the operating room, instead running at full speed, cutting quickly, and looking every bit like a player who can help the Bengals' offense return to the ranks of the NFL's best. There's a chance that if the Bengals are at optimum health, Gio's numbers won't pop the way they did two years ago, but it's all but certain that if he's healthy, Giovani Bernard will be one of the reasons why the offense is producing at an optimum level.
For now, the simple fact that he's out there doing Giovani Bernard things - eight months after an ACL tear - is enough of a triumph.
2) Luis Castillo. You could feel it yesterday: the eyes of the baseball world were on the big Dan Straily/Luis Castillo pitching matchup, which provided the main subplot to a critical game between the Reds and Marlins in Miami. These two starting pitchers were traded for each other, and the glare of the national spotlight was so hot and bright, that it seemed like a battle of which pitcher would wilt first.
Straily, for his part, was effective. Six innings. Two runs.
Castillo, though, was spectacular. Eight innings. A run. Six strikeouts. 106 efficient pitches.
You may have stopped paying attention to the Reds, and justifiably so. But as miserable as the death-march to another 90+ loss season might be, the hope is that enough encouraging things happen with their young pitchers to make us think that 2018 might not suck as much as the previous few years have. That will require watching guys go through growing pains, as the most recent Robert Stephenson and Sal Romano starts would indicate, but hopefully there are moments like yesterday's seventh and eighth innings, when Castillo retired six straight Marlins - striking out three - while seemingly getting stronger as his pitch count rose.
Castillo has had his moments of painful growth too, but in nearly every start, he's provided a moment or two that made you think about what kind of pitcher we'll be watching two seasons from now, and - I've talked about this before - I've not heard Chris Welsh sound as giddy about a young pitcher as he sounds about Luis Castillo.
In a second half of a season that might struggle to grab - or keep - your attention, Luis Castillo is worth paying attention to.
3) #RefShow at Nippert. I had two commitments on Saturday that limited my ability to be near a television. But every time I took a glance at the FC Cincinnati/Rochester match up Saturday, I saw the ref handing someone a yellow, awarding penalty kicks, or hogging all the screen time. I saw very little actual soccer, mainly because Guido Gonzales Jr. decided that the the 24K+ who showed up at Nippert were there to see him officiate and impose himself on the match, stopping it seemingly every 45 seconds.
What my eyes saw was confirmed by Cincinnati Soccer Talk...
Guido began to break up the game and call more and more fouls. In the 43rd minute, Djiby challenged for a 50-50 ball and again Djiby came out as the loser when the center decided that he had earned another yellow card and sent him from the match. The crowd at Nippert was furious. They had watched two footed challenges from Rochester get little attention, but with no warning, Djiby gets 2 soft yellows at best.
At the end of the half, the referee had handed out 14 fouls, 3 yellows and a red card. What had started as an exciting soccer game between two teams that looked well balanced trying to gain an advantage over the other, had descended into a ridiculous show of uneven officiating. The score, shots, possession and fouls showed the game to be equal, but Gonzales decided to be the headline and unevenly apply discipline and changed the course of the game.
But Guido was only getting started. It’s tough to call the second half anything but a carnival. The second half contained 21 fouls, 6 yellows and 2 more reds during a comedy that was pretending to be a soccer game. In the chaos, three penalty kicks were awarded. After the first PK, Rochester’s Fall was shown a yellow for celebrating?? The second PK wasn’t even a questionable call, it was 100% wrong. Kevin Schindler was called for handling when the ball wasn’t even close to his arms. The 3rd penalty was originally called outside the box, then during the resulting chaos, two red cards were issued to Dallas Jaye off the bench and the FC Cincinnati assistant coach, Yoann Damet. After that mess was over and a conference was held with the AR, the call was overturned and Cincinnati was given the PK.
Guess this is what happens when American Athletic Conference basketball officials are asked to officiate a soccer match.
Recommended Link Of The Day: The New Middle Man, Dan Hoard's profile of Bengals linebacker Kevin Minter.
Radio Show: Back at it today. Tony Pike is live from PBS at 3:40, 4:40, and 5:40. James Rapien is there as well and we'll hear his interviews with players, plus a look at what may or may not happen at the MLB trade deadline, the great Dave Parker joins me, as does Tennis Hall of Famer Chris Evert. We'll go heavy on the Bengals, with thoughts on the O-line, Andy Dalton, and Marvin Lewis...and we'll investigate whatever the Hell that was at Nippert on Saturday night. Fun show today. Join us at 3:05 on ESPN1530.