Heading into the start of the regular season, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner had no idea that he was ever going to start a game. While he is one of likely the few players on the roster that has actually been in communication with Le’Veon Bell, he has said that one thing they don’t discuss is business, meaning that he doesn’t know better than anyone else what the running back plans to do.
So when he got the opportunity to start in the team’s season opener, he was prepared from a physical standpoint—he had been running with the first-team offense for the entire year—but it was likely a mental conversion to slide into that role.
Every week, likely, was a week spent on borrowed time, not knowing if Bell would ever show up and take his job away. But as he continues on game after game, even making Steelers history, it seems, according to his teammates, that things are changing.
“I think he’s handling it like a professional”, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Conner on his radio show. “The whole Le’Veon stuff can’t be easy, but I finally think he’s not looking over his shoulder”, a comment that resonates on multiple levels. “I think he’s settling in like, ‘I can handle my own up here. I’m doing some good things’”.
As you surely know by now, Conner became the first player in Steelers history to rush for at least 100 yards with two rushing touchdowns in three consecutive games. He has done that in four of the team’s first seven games, which is the second-most in a season in team history, only one behind Franco Harris’s franchise record. His nine rushing touchdowns through seven games also ties another Harris franchise record.
Conner ranks high league wide in rushing touchdowns, in rushing yardage, and yards from scrimmage. He is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has over 300 receiving yards as well, on pace for over 2000 yards from scrimmage, and the second-most in a single season in team history.
Two months into his starting career, he is starting to feel like one, and to feel like a player with a long-term future as a top-level performer. Even if Bell ultimately reports this season, it’s virtually assured that he is not going to be handed the starting job, and we can probably already presume that he is not going to be on the roster in 2019.
As he was well on his way to compiling over 200 yards at Heinz Field in front of the adoring Pittsburgh crowd in the second half of a 33-18 victory, Conner go the opportunity to hear his name being chanted. That doesn’t just happen. It’s something a player has to earn.