Has there been a casting call for a reboot of the old 1970s TV series, The Incredible Hulk?
I’m only asking because of the incredible bulk both running back James Conner and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster have seemingly put on this offseason. Whether it’s tossing logs in Conner’s case or lifting, lifting and lifting more weights in the case of Smith-Schuster’s, both have me convinced: They want it.
They need it, too. I’m talking about the Steelers. They need both of these young guys— true leaders at their respective young ages— to step up and take their games to new levels. Will this total dedication to training and eating right (I hope they’re eating right, or I’m going to be even more jealous than I already am) pay off in 2020?
I know they’re both banking on it. That’s a cute way of saying each are going into the final years of their rookie deals. Not only do they want to improve upon their lackluster and injury-filled 2019 campaigns, they want to maximize their earning potential for that all-important second contract.
It’s funny how things go in the sports world. Both players have gone from fan favorites to, well, not villains, but let’s just say the shine is off the rose that was their first two seasons in the league.
Conner came to Pittsburgh with a Hollywood-type story of inspiration and triumph. He overcame cancer at Pitt, and he wanted to show the world that there was more to the story, namely a productive NFL career as a running back. It looked like he was on his way in his second season, but the same injury bug that cropped up in 2017— he suffered a season-ending MCL injury— reared its ugly head again. Even though he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 with 1,470 yards from scrimmage, Conner’s year was compromised down the stretch due to a concussion and a leg injury. As for 2019? When wasn’t he injured?
True, it may be an unfair way of putting it. But it just seemed like Conner was never healthy long enough to make much of a difference in Pittsburgh’s quarterback-compromised offense last season.
Having said all that, perhaps it’s no surprise Conner appears to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder this offseason and seems hell-bent on proving the doubters wrong. Those doubters have a right to doubt, of course. I believe most will always love and admire Conner, but the name of the game is results, and it’s much harder when you’re not around to get them.
When it comes to Smith-Schuster, he was the toast of the town over his first two seasons. Not only did he catch a combined 169 passes for 2,343 yards and 14 touchdowns, you just wanted to hug him for his man about town escapades, social media presence and effervescent personality. However, like most athletes, he couldn’t hold off the doubters forever, and they began to crop up right around the time the admiration for his charming personality and social media presence started to wear off. Why? He didn’t produce nearly as much in 2019 as the number one receiver as he did in 2018, when he played Robin to Antonio Brown’s Batman.
There was also the matter of that critical overtime fumble against the Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6. It led almost directly to a loss. The same could be said for the fumble that came late in a Week 16 loss to the Saints in 2018. Fair to continuously remind Smith-Schuster of those fumbles like many have? No, but they came in high-leverage situations so people are going to remember them more. Speaking of high-leverage situations, Conner has had a few critical fumbles early in his career.
Have fans been a little hard on both? Of course. But fans are going to be demanding of on-field results. For that matter, they’re going to be demanding of off-field activities. Unrealistic as it may be, fans want players to dedicate themselves to their craft 24/7/365.
While they are certainly not doing that this offseason, both James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster are giving the appearance they are.
Perception is reality.
But will the reality be a great 2020 for both? If not, you can’t say it wasn’t from a lack of dedication.