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Will James Conner’s running style cause him to be injury prone?

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back has a bruising running style, but will that lead to more injuries?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It is fair to wonder if James Conner’s running style will cause him to be injury prone. Running back is an injury prone position to begin with, but certain runner’s styles exacerbate the risk.

Franco Harris is a Pittsburgh Steelers legend. When you think of him, several things come to mind: Immaculate Reception, Hall of Fame, Franco’s Italian Army, and Super Bowl MVP. The stuff from which legends are carved. However, if you watched Franco in the 1970s, another thing comes to mind.

Running out of bounds.

Oh yeah, if you were a Steelers’ fan in that heyday era you certainly heard that complaint — or said it yourself — quite a bit. It is as much a part of Franco’s career as the aforementioned accolades.

Cleveland Brown’s legend Jim Brown famously said it, too. In fact, Brown was so disgusted by Franco’s style, he openly lamented the fact that Franco looked to be the running back that would break his career yards record in 1984. He was so disgruntled that he even challenged Franco Harris to a race on national TV, claiming he would beat Franco.

Keep in mind, Jim Brown was retired since 1965 at the time. It was ludicrous, and very insulting to Franco Harris. A classless act by Jim Brown. Usually, players show up to celebrate their records being broken. Or, at least they go through the motions and say the right things.

Not Jim Brown.

Franco Harris, to his credit, took it in stride because he has always had class. As it panned out, Franco Harris never passed Jim Brown anyway. Franco decided to hold out for more money, was cut by the Steelers, and then signed with the Seattle Seahawks in one of the worst PR moments in Steelers’ team history.

Franco, ironically, only gained 170 more yards and decided to retire mid-season despite only needing less than 200 yards to surpass Brown. To add more irony, Walter Payton did pass Jim Brown’s record that very same year. Walter Payton’s style was the opposite of Franco’s. He never ran out of bounds, and Brown never complained about him.

As for Jim Brown’s challenge, Franco did beat Brown in a 40 yard dash in special TV event in 1985, one year after Franco retired. Franco ran a 5.16 and Brown a 5.72. Brown grasped his hamstring during the race but didn’t blame that for losing. Both 40 times were uninspiring, and it does seem to help prove that the Steelers did the right thing in not paying Franco’s holdout demands.

Anyway, Franco Harris has been quoted as saying that watching Redskin’s running back Larry Brown — who came from Pittsburgh’s Hill District and played at Schenley High School — made him realize the impact of taking needless punishment. “Second effort” was synonymous with Larry Brown, taking on tacklers and gaining yards after contact.

Yes, it was hard-nosed football, and fans – including Steelers fans – love that style. His career biography was entitled, “I’ll Always Get Up.” Larry Brown, however, wore down and his career was cut short due to injuries. After a few great seasons, he withered away.

Franco Harris didn’t want to repeat that career arc. When needed, Franco put his head down and pushed forward. When it wasn’t needed, he often scooted out of bounds avoiding the hit. He had 91 rushing touchdowns, 11th all time, tied with fellow Steeler Jerome Bettis who hardly was known for running out of bounds. The Steelers won 4 Super Bowls with him the workhorse, and an MVP in one as mentioned earlier. Franco enjoyed a mainly injury-free 12 year career.

The one notable time he got injured was for the 1976 AFC Championship game versus the Oakland Raiders. He and running mate Rocky Bleier both missed that game, and Art Rooney’s choice for his best football squad of all-time went down in flames.

Thus, proving the importance of an injury-free Franco Harris, Jim Brown’s opinion be damned. It can be argued that Franco’s strategy was both successful in elongating his career and in team victories. You can’t complain about his personal or team accomplishments.

They were amazing.

Which bring me back to the case of James Conner. After watching him, especially this season, I just can’t help but come to the realization that he will always be a high injury risk. And it isn’t just because he doesn’t run out of bounds.

He never does that, of course. He takes on tacklers head on, and it is wonderful to watch. But practically all running backs do that in today’s NFL. I really can’t think of a running back that ducks out of bounds like Franco did playing in the NFL now, or even recently.

Franco was just unique in that way. It worked for him and the Steelers.

But, not every running back I feel is as injury prone as Conner even though they also don’t run out of bounds. It is because I couple Conner’s head-on, smashing style with another aspect of his style.


He just looks wild when he’s running, almost like he’s overrunning at times. It seems like every run ends with him smashing into defenders, and then twisting, and/or spinning, and/or tripping, and/or flipping, and or/bending, and/or turning, and/or a lot of things — you insert the violent ending! There’s a ferocious end to a high percentage of his plays.

Le’Veon Bell was the opposite. He glided, and juked and cut, rarely seeming to absorb a hard hit or awkward ending to most of his rushes.

Conner is more like a bowling ball bouncing off of pins. You wince, at times, when Conner ends his runs, hoping he’s going to get up OK after he goes down awkwardly, bending in different directions. Bell rarely takes direct hits, while it is rare for Conner not to take a direct hit.

Chuck Noll once said of a forgotten Steeler running back of the past that he runs with “reckless abandon.”

That’s it! That’s the description of Conner’s style, dead on. Thanks, Chuck.

I’m not saying that James Conner should change his style or that there is anything wrong with it. He has been very effective so far. Furthermore, I don’t believe a running back can change his style any more than I think a QB can change his lifelong throwing motion. No amount of “fixing” was going to make Bernie Kosar or Tim Tebow throw differently. James Conner, too, is what he is.

He’s not going to morph into Le’Veon Bell.

I’m simply saying that it is hard for me to believe that his reckless abandon won’t lead to many injuries. The fact is that he has already had a multitude of injuries in his brief career. Just this season it seems he gets bruised up each game, missing time. He seems a question mark, either to his availability or to his effectiveness, due to “something” each week.

The Steelers have done the right thing in drafting Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. So, while you won’t -- or don’t want to – change James Conner’s play, you simply want to make sure you’ve got other capable players to come in for the inevitable missed time. The Steelers seem to have done that.

And, I think I’ll be surprised if he has a 12 year Franco Harris length career. It very well may go the way of bruiser Larry Brown.

One thing is for sure: Jim Brown will never feel the need to challenge James Conner to a race. He would approve.