Sometimes, decisions simply come down to who shows up, and that was particularly true for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backfield this year. While Le’Veon Bell stayed away from training camp this past offseason, Steelers coaches and players insisted that the offense wouldn’t miss a beat with James Conner, the second-year running back out of Pitt who grew up just two hours north of Pittsburgh. It was easy to dismiss their words as generic endorsements for a teammate, but it turned out they were underselling him. Conner has been better this season than Bell has in the past, and Conner may have earned the right to keep the job when (or if) Bell shows.
Entering the Steelers’ Week 10 matchup with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, Conner is second to only Rams running back Todd Gurley in yards from scrimmage (1,085) and rushing yards (706), tied for fourth in total touchdowns (10), and is tied for sixth in yards per attempt among running backs with more than 100 carries (4.7). His 5.7 yards per touch are nearly a full yard more than Bell’s mark from last year (when Bell was named first-team All-Pro). Conner has already tied Bell’s career high for rushing touchdowns (nine) and is just one shy of Bell’s single-season high for total touchdowns (11) despite being just eight games into the season. He’s also a fantasy football godsend and comes in third among running backs in fantasy points per game in standard, PPR, and half-PPR scoring after being drafted at an average spot of 197th overall in Yahoo leagues, which makes him the midseason fantasy MVP by a country mile. Those eye-popping numbers propelled him to AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October, and he was congratulated by the NFC’s winner, the consensus best back in football.
Soon, his name may be mentioned in the same breath with some even bigger than Todd Gurley’s. Conner is the only player in Steelers history with 1,000 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns through the first eight games of a season. If he continues at that pace, he’ll become just the 11th player since 1920 to score 20 or more touchdowns and gain 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a season. The others are O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Ahman Green, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, and David Johnson. (Gurley is also on pace to join this group.)
Many of his numbers are possible because the Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in football. Guards Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, and B.J. Finney (who has filled in while DeCastro missed time a broken hand); center Maurkice Pouncey; and tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert are jelling as well as any unit in the league right now. And offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner deserves credit after taking over for Todd Haley this year and leading an offense that has the fourth-most passing yards per game and third-least sacks per dropback.
But Conner’s season is more than just the product of a strong environment. He has accrued those stats despite opposing defenses putting eight or more defenders in the box on 30.5 percent of his snaps this season, the eighth-highest figure in the league and 1.5 times as often as Bell faced a stacked box in 2017. Even with all those players clogging the middle of the field, Conner has avoided the second-most tackles after a rush (32) and the second-most tackles after a catch (20) of any running back in the league, per Pro Football Focus. Of running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts, Conner is one of nine with more than 3 yards after contact per attempt.
You’d think that a hometown hero, cancer-surviving running back being the second-best back in football would be a bigger story, but nothing about Conner’s game is flashy. Unlike Bell, Conner doesn’t churn out highlights nor have a signature move. He’s submitted few memorable plays this year. The most remarkable thing about watching him is when he takes his helmet off and reveals his haircut.
(You know those farms that sit on the side of a mountain? That’s James Conner’s head.)
The haircut is eye-popping, but everything else about his season has been a model for consistency. He hasn’t had a run or catch longer than 30 yards this season, but he is first in the league in rushes of 20-plus yards (eight), and is tied for second in the league in rushes of 10-plus yards (21). (Bell had just three rushes of 20-plus yards in 2017.) In his last four games, he’s had 21, 19, 24, and 24 carries for 110, 111, 146, and 107 yards for 5.2, 5.8, 6.1, and 4.4 yards per carry, respectively.
The only people who love Conner more than his fantasy owners are Steelers fans. His hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania is split between Steelers and Browns fans, and he played football at Pitt. Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015. Less than three months after he was drafted by the Steelers in 2017, Conner’s jersey was the second-best selling jersey at Dick’s Sporting Goods, behind only Tom Brady and eight spots ahead of teammate Antonio Brown. This admittedly flawed exercise only counts jersey sales at Dick’s. But still, Tom Brady.
The elephant (not) in the room is Bell. The absent Steelers running back sent up a bat signal on Monday when he hinted he was leaving Miami, where he has been working out (and riding Jet Skis and putting out three-quarters-assed SoundCloud rap music).
Fairwell Miami— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) November 5, 2018
Bell’s complicated holdout has been muddled by conflicting reports during the last three months, but there is a firm deadline in sight: He can play this season if he shows up by November 13, and he can’t play if he doesn’t. (Either way he will be able to negotiate with teams in March.) If Bell doesn’t return, the Steelers will keep plugging along as they have all season, and Conner will have a chance to set a variety of franchise records and take his place in history with some elite company. But even if Bell does return, Conner may have done enough to keep the gig.
It would be quite the twist. Bell has been one of the best backs in the league throughout his five-year career. He has more yards from scrimmage in his first 62 career games than anyone in NFL history, and his agent has hinted that Bell wants to achieve career highs in per-game numbers when he returns. But he has not been with the team since January, when the Steelers lost in the divisional round to the Jaguars and Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler he would seriously consider sitting out the season if he was franchise-tagged again. (He’s a man of his word.) Even if Bell is in midseason shape (and he may not be), he’ll still be rusty. It’s much easier to envision Bell’s lack of chemistry disrupting Pittsburgh’s running game than significantly upgrading it from Conner’s performance. There’s also the small matter that Conner has earned the job. Steelers players and coaches may welcome Bell back with half-open arms, and Pittsburgh’s mercurial locker room has the flair for the dramatic. Even one bad game from Bell may rankle the rank-and-file offensive players who had the team humming with Conner.
The Steelers have not shared running back duties since Bell showed up in 2013. That strategy remained when Conner took over. (He got 31 carries in his first start after receiving 32 carries in his entire rookie season.) Now that the team could have Bell and Conner together, head coach Mike Tomlin and Fichtner may have to decide how much change they want from the return of a player who’s ludicrously overqualified to be a change-of-pace back. Bell can show up, but the decision isn’t up to him.