With the calendar hitting July on the 2019 NFL schedule, just weeks away from training camp beginning, it might be easy to start to forget that, a year from now, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner was still an afterthought, at least to a certain degree, in the team’s plans.
Even up until the week of preparation leading up to the season opener, everyone on the team, Conner included, anticipated that All-Pro Le’Veon Bell would come strolling through the doors of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, swooping in as the proverbial savior.
He never did, and so now here we find ourselves 10 months later focusing on Conner, who had a Pro Bowl season in Bell’s absence, recording 13 scores in 13 games played and nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage—over 100 yards per game between rushing and receiving.
But even deep into the season, there were weekly questions about Bell, because there was always that possibility that he would show up. Would he skip a week or two, just to show the team what they were missing? Would he come in during the bye week? Would he wait until the last minute?
Of course, Bell later revealed that he did almost show up before thinking better of it. He was a distraction either way, whether he was present or not, because he generated questions that his would-be teammates had to answer, and you could tell by their responses that they had grown weary.
For Conner, however, it was never an issue. He was asked about just that yesterday during an appearance on ESPN while he was making the media rounds. “The NFL is enough, getting prepared week to week with what you do with your body and the game plans and everything”, he said.
“It was easy. I had a laser-like focus each week of the season, so it was really easy for me to tune out the noise”, he went on. “I had no control over it. if he was going to come back, he would’ve got his spot and would’ve been the starter and life would’ve went on. I was just focused on me and focusing on the task at hand and playing for my teammates”.
The then-second-year pro recorded 973 rushing yards on 215 attempts last season with 12 scores on the ground, the latter the most by a Steelers player since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010. Conner also added 55 receptions for another 497 yards and one more score. He was voted to the Pro Bowl outright to represent the AFC.
And he did all of that not knowing, at the start of the season, heading into the bye week, even deep into the year, whether or not he was going to remain the starter. While he did work as the starter throughout the offseason, since Bell was not there, there is a different energy to preparing knowing you’ll be starting versus preparing simply as though you would be starting.