It’s not that we’ve forgotten the Pittsburgh Steelers running back’s incredible journey, from a harrowing battle with Hodgkin lymphoma when he was at the University of Pitt to becoming one of the best players in the NFL this season. It’s just that the story needs to get retold as often as possible.
The NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award is a strange one because everyone has different criteria for it. And since Conner’s battle with cancer didn’t happen last year, he’s probably not going to win. It’s not like Conner wasn’t playing at Pitt in 2016 or a bit with the Steelers last season. However, even though Conner has been in remission since May of 2016, if voters decided to give him the award, nobody would complain.
James Conner has been one of NFL’s best players this season
Forget the backstory and how many people Conner has inspired with his journey. His play itself is remarkable.
Conner has 1,085 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns though eight games. That’s a pace for 2,170 yards and 20 touchdowns. Le’Veon Bell, whose holdout cleared the way for Conner to shine, has career highs of 2,215 yards and 11 touchdowns in a season. Bell is a two-time All-Pro and considered one of the best players in the game.
Conner has gone about his work without much self-promotion. Most of his interviews haven’t focused on himself, but just doing his job within the offense. He has talked about how he’s built for the workload the Steelers are giving him. He has praised Bell and said he’s just the next man up.
“I’m just doing what I love to do,” Conner said earlier this season, according to the Associated Press.
His teammates are more than happy to talk about him. Conner was one of the driving forces in the Steelers’ latest win over the Ravens, a huge step for them in the AFC North. Conner had 163 total yards and a touchdown.
“It’s James showing no challenge is too big for him – No. 1 defense, whatever it might be,” Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva said after the Ravens game, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When you’re close to him and you see him lower his shoulder and get a couple of yards it’s extremely motivating. I have to give him a lot of credit for his performance today.”
Given what he went through to get to the NFL, it’s no surprise Conner isn’t scared of a football challenge.
What will happen when and if Le’Veon Bell returns?
The question with Conner the rest of this season, of course, is what happens when and if Bell ends his holdout and reports to the Steelers.
Bell bid adieu to Miami and has been seen in Pittsburgh this week, though he hasn’t reported to sign his franchise tag yet. There have been countless reports about Bell’s intentions and we’re still waiting to find out what he’ll do. Nobody knows for sure except Bell and maybe his agent.
It says something about how good Conner has been that it appears Bell won’t resume his full-time duty if he reports. Conner might not have to continue his extreme workload if Bell comes in, and that would be good for Conner and the Steelers down the stretch. But he has likely turned a two-time All-Pro into a timeshare back the rest of the season, if Bell signs. That’s impressive.
We’ll all see when it happens. From all accounts, Conner seems unworried about how much playing time Bell might take from him. Given his path to get to this point of his football career, that makes sense.
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