Will the real James Conner please stand up? There appears to be two distinctly different sides to this particular individual. There is the proven performer, and the unproven producer, all wrapped up in the same player. The Pittsburgh Steelers have to decide quickly which one is the norm, and which one is the direct result of circumstance. Their football future depends on them choosing the correct answer to this question.
Let's start with what we do know. James Conner is a inspiration to us all and epitomizes courage in the face of adversity. His cancer diagnosis and his fight to not only prevail over the disease but also return to the game he loves his been well covered and documented.
James Conner burst onto the scene right out of the gate last season. No sooner did the Steelers realize that LeVeon Bell wasn't going to report for the first game of the season did Conner go out and have a monster game against the Browns in the opener. His touches were limited over the first quarter of the season due to circumstances beyond his control, but he produced consistently when called upon.
The second quarter of the season is where Conner really found his groove, both in the running and passing game. He also displayed his improved pass blocking skills, proving all his hard work in the off season had really paid off. He was running with reckless abandon and his powerful stiff arms and nifty spin moves were appearing regularly on Sportscenter. His game was really taking off and his confidence was at an all time high. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October.
That is about when Bell's presence, or lack thereof, negatively affected Conner and the Steelers yet again.
Not long after it became official that Bell would not report to the team and instead sit out the season, NFL Network personality Bucky Brooks openly questioned on air if Conner would be able to handle the pressure of knowing that Bell wasn't coming through the door at any point of the season to offer him support and to save the day. Brooks wondered aloud if Conner could handle being the Man, the player that every defensive coordinator was game planning to stop. He insinuated that the uncertainty concerning Bell's availability had somehow shielded Conner from the full brunt of the expectations of the starting position in a playoff caliber offense. I thought the very suggestion was merely more national media hate speak toward the Steelers and gave it little merit. Then came the precipitous decline.
The second half of the season for Conner, and I am lumping both the third and fourth quarters of the season together because it was all one big blur, was a nightmare of epic proportions. He suddenly appeared to be struggling to keep his early season momentum going. It almost appeared at times he was trying too hard, as if he had something more to prove. Not just to all the doubters, but even to himself. The guy who always ran the ball like his life depended on the outcome suddenly started struggling with ball security. His body language told the story as his confidence waned. As his confidence diminished, the Steelers trust level in him did likewise. He wanted so desperately to make a big play he failed to focus on making the routine ones, resulting in dropped passes and missed opportunities. He was no longer running the ball uninhibited and confidently, instead he was wrapping both arms around the ball attempting not to fumble. At this point he really needed to take a step back and regain his composure, but the Steelers really didn't have any proven depth behind him, so on he played.
Then came the high ankle sprain against the Chargers, a game where Conner had actually shown glimpses of his early season form, and he was done for the season. The concern for the Steelers moving forward is the fact that both of Conner's professional seasons have ended due to leg injuries. It was also an issue during his collegiate career. Conner is naturally a aggressive runner. He runs to contact rather than away from it. His ability to utilize his stiff arm, spin moves, and run through said contact is both impressive and imperative to his success.
The Steelers have an important decision to make this off season. Which James Conner will they be getting next season? The player from the first half of the season, who will be participating in the Pro Bowl this weekend. Or the player that lacked focus and self confidence, and the ability to stay healthy, over the second half of the season. Conner's punishing running style is not conducive to a lack of confidence toting the rock or a propensity to injury. This is a legitimate question and the answer will directly affect the Steelers plans in free agency and the draft.