James Conner bringing back no-quit mentality to Cardinals’ backfield
When Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner signed a one-year contract with the team last offseason, it was clear he was playing on a prove-it deal.
Eighteen total touchdowns and a new three-year deal later and it’s safe to say Conner more than proved his worth to the organization.
“It’s nice just to have a team believe in you and invest in you and all that,” Conner said Tuesday. “I absolutely fell in love with the place, I fell in love with Arizona, fell in love with this organization, everybody in the building.
“And so to just have a three-year contract and go forward from here, it’s just nice … call this place home.”
Unlike last season, Conner is now the defacto lead back in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense with 2021 running mate Chase Edmonds signing with the Miami Dolphins in free agency. That means Conner is line to see a bump in reps in both the rushing and receiving game after racking up 239 touches and 1,127 scrimmage yards last year.
Conner is all for the added workload.
“Sky’s the limit,” Conner said. “I’m just looking to make plays, whether that’d be running, receiving and having a year in this offense now. That’s why I say athlete (instead of running back) because any way I can get the ball in the end zone it’s gonna help us win games. You got to be athletic to do that.
“So I’m just gonna sharpen all my skills. I know what Kliff expects. James Jackson, my running backs coach, I know what he expects. So just looking to bring my best self.”
There’s more to Conner’s game than just touchdown totals and stats, with the running back bringing a relentless, no-quit mentality to the team.
That type of determination was built over the years given Conner’s bout with cancer in 2016 and a season-ending knee injury a year prior that put his playing days into question at one point. The running back hasn’t forgotten his path, realizing just how lucky he is to be able to don an NFL jersey.
“Not everybody gets that second chance, so my motivation is doing it for everybody that can’t do it,” Conner said. “Everybody sitting up in the hospital beds and wishing for a brighter future like I once was. I like to be that hope for them and let them know that it’s possible and there’s life after you feel like you hit rock bottom.
“I’ve been there, so my motivation is simple. I’m constantly reminded every day. When I look I got my scars on me. I love this game of football. I’m going to give my all to it and I know that it’s temporary. There’s a day coming when I’m not going to play anymore and I’ve just got to give it my all.”
Despite Conner’s eagerness and motivation to be that offensive catalyst, losing a guy of Edmonds’ caliber leaves a void in Arizona’s backfield.
The Cardinals offense was at its best with the one-two punch running the rock. Before Edmonds went down with an ankle injury in Week 9, the pair had combined for 785 rushing yards and nine touchdowns to go along with 35 catches for 245 receiving yards.
Unfortunately for the pair, they would only get one more game in Week 14 together thanks to injuries to both Conner and Edmonds.
Now with Edmonds in a new uniform, the Cardinals have Conner and Eno Benjamin currently under contract for next year. They’ve also extended an exclusive rights tender to Jonathan Ward this offseason, making his return likely and signed Jaylen Samuels to a futures deal shortly after the season ended.
Benjamin found pay dirt for the first time in his NFL career this season but still saw just 34 carries in 2021. Ward was used primarily as a special teams piece and saw a total of nine rushing attempts last year. The dropoff behind Conner is very real.
While it’s entirely possible the Cardinals add another running back to the mix through free agency or the 2022 NFL Draft, Arizona would like to see where Benjamin and Ward are at in their progressions as NFL running backs.
For Conner, it’s about leading by example, something he’s accustomed to.
“I’m just going to continue to play my role, be that veteran in this RB group and … come to work every day … and just drop the gems on those guys when I can and just look to help them whenever needed,” Conner said.