There is basically one season in Mike Tomlin’s history in which he took a running back by committee approach, and even that was influenced by injury. At the end of the 2011 season, Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL, and was not ready to return at the start of the next season. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman split the bulk of the touches.
The next year, they drafted Le’Veon Bell. And James Conner has largely slid into that workhorse back role over the course of the past two seasons as well, while he has been healthy. Though the running backs in the offseason last year talked about having more of a rotation, it didn’t really develop while Conner was available.
Now there is even more talk about that possibility, with the continued growth of young backs like Benny Snell and the addition of Anthony McFarland in the draft…not to mention Conner’s ongoing injury history, which understandably makes the team more cautious about counting on him for some 300 touches.
Yesterday, he spoke to members of the media about a variety of topics, and he was asked about his own feelings about workload, after Tomlin recently reiterated his position that he generally preferred to use one featured runner in his offense.
“It’s our job to be at our best, no matter how many carries. We’ve got to start fast. We’ve got to hit first as a back. We’ve got to be ready. We’ve got to have a high motor”, Conner said. “That’s what I’m gonna take pride in, is just starting fast, whether I’m the guy, however this year works. Like I said, the goal is to win, and we need to be ready at all times, not, you can’t warm up to it. That’s our slogan, that’s what we’ve been saying. We can’t warm up to it. I’m not really paying attention to how many carries I need. I don’t really believe in that”.
It’s unclear, at least to me, exactly what Conner really thinks about his own role. Does he want to be a 20-carries-a-game back, or does he prefer to work in a committee that has more specialized roles? Above all, he states that his desire is to win games, however, which counts above all other factors, including individual roles.
It remains to be seen what the backfield workload will actually look like in 2020. Last season’ plans went awry when all three of their top running backs suffered injuries. Not to mention the chaotic situation at quarterback, which saw about seven or eight changes, either due to injury or performance, over the course of the year.