It’s time to take the kid gloves off when discussing Steelers third-year running back James Conner.
Yes, he’s battled back from a lot in his life, more than most people ever will. Yes, he’s good people, captain material, the kind of guy you want to lead your team.
But, while all of those attributes are great for a running back, none of them matter if he can’t hold onto the football—especially at critical times.
Admit it, when Conner fumbled the football back to the 49ers just moments after they fumbled it to the Steelers in the fourth quarter of what would become a 24-20 loss at Levi Stadium on Sunday (Conner’s fumble led to the 49ers game-winning touchdown with just 1:15 remaining), you weren’t all that surprised, were you?
If you were, it may have been because you hadn’t been paying all that much attention to Conner’s career as a number one running back since taking the reins from Le’Veon Bell in Week 1 of the 2018 season.
Conner now has 15 career starts and 315 touches—249 carries and 66 catches—since taking over for Bell last year, and he’s fumbled the football away five times.
Are five fumbles too much for that many touches? That’s debatable, but I do know Bell had a grand-total of eight fumbles despite tallying over 1,500 touches in five years as the Steelers workhorse running back.
And can you ever remember Bell fumbling at a key moment?
This isn’t meant to be a Conner vs. Bell article, but that fear people had prior to Sunday’s game of Conner being a chronic fumbler only intensified during and now after the game. And when you add Conner’s crucial gaffe that came at a key moment to the two he had in 2018—the fourth-quarter fumble in Cleveland that proved to be the catalyst for a come-from-ahead tie against the Browns in Week 1; and a third-quarter fumble in Denver when it appeared the Steelers were about to take the lead in what eventually became a disheartening Week 12 loss to the Broncos—it now appears Conner is a nervous fumbler, and it's becoming a chronic condition.
It’s hard to deny that accusation when three of your five career fumbles have occurred in the second half, when your team is either in control or about to take control of a football game.
There are a few factors that go into being a reliable running back in the NFL. One of those is obviously being productive. Another is being durable. A third is being trustworthy with the ball in your hands—particularly in key moments.
Based on his lone, full season as a starter, Conner appears to have the ability to be a productive running back for the Steelers—after all, he did make the Pro Bowl in 2018.
Unfortunately, Conner also missed four games a season ago, which, combined with the major knee injury that ended his rookie season, calls into question his durability.
Given the nature of his position, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to expect Conner to be an iron man football player. Nope, it’s not fair to expect that, and it shouldn’t be held against him if he has to miss some games from time to time over the course of his career (provided, it’s only from time to time, of course).
But when it comes to ball security, it’s not unfair at all to expect a running back to be trustworthy, particular with the game quite literally in his hands.
So far, Conner has left a lot to be desired in the trustworthy department.
James Conner is and will always be a great story. But what the Steelers need him to be right now is a great running back.
And he’ll never be that if they can’t rely on him when it matters the most.