I’m sure you’ve seen it by now, and I’m surprised that we haven’t actually covered it ourselves up to this point, but it’s kind of our job to get around to something like this eventually. Three years after being diagnosed with cancer, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner became a Pro Bowler this season, and he reflected on that after the news came out.
He shared the words of former Pitt teammate Aaron Donald, who messaged him when the news came out and offered his support. The running back shared the message on Instagram, writing that “3 years ago big bro [Aaron Donald] sent me this text after I got diagnosed with cancer. Today [is] special because it’s all coming to reality”.
Donald, a Defensive Player of the Year, assured Conner that he would be going to seven Pro Bowls after he beats cancer. Well, he’s got the first one down.
The 2017 third-round pick has been very vocal about not wanting his cancer history to define his professional career, even though in spite of this, pretty much every non-1 PM game has featured some segment about the fact that he had cancer.
But his play has truly spoken for itself this season. Even while missing two games, he has rushed for 909 yards on 201 attempts for 12 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He also added 52 more touches on receptions for 467 yards and another touchdown, giving him 1376 yards from scrimmage and 13 scores. He also had a pair of successful two-point conversions.
It’s fair to say that Conner has performed beyond the expectations of most people outside of the Steelers’ locker room, especially in the passing game, even if he had some pretty significant drops late in the year. His only real blemish has been his four fumbles.
Of course he was supposed to be the Steelers’ number two running back behind Le’Veon Bell, who chose to sit out the 2018 season in order to ensure as best he can that he will be fully healthy when he signs a new contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2019.
Had Bell been here, Conner probably doesn’t get much work. Just look at how much playing time the running backs behind Conner have gotten while he was healthy. The Steelers are apparently just a team that really believes in using a featured back.
That has even been the case in the past two games with their backup-turned-Pro-Bowl-starter sidelined. Rookie Jaylen Samuels has produced over 250 yards of offense over the course of the past two weeks and seen the vast majority of the workload.
As for Conner, he averaged just over 21 touches per game leading up to his injury for about 115 yards of offense. Not bad for a backup. And for the record, I still maintain that DeAngelo Williams should have been a Pro Bowler in 2015.