Cardinals’ James Conner on his return to Pittsburgh: ‘Just going to be me’

Nov 30, 2023, 5:00 PM | Updated: Dec 1, 2023, 1:08 pm

TEMPE — “Just stay focused, keep God first and just play good football.”

When Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner decided to sign in the desert, he was determined to make a career in the NFL.

Despite four years of respectable ball with the Pittsburgh Steelers that included a Pro Bowl nod and 12 touchdowns in 2018, the running back didn’t feel his NFL future was certain.

Conner, the Pennsylvania-native who battled through injuries and cancer to eventually find himself playing for the hometown team, needed a change.

And the Cardinals needed a running back.

“It was God’s plan, truthfully,” Conner said Wednesday. “Coming out here on the West Coast, it was like a whole new experience. But it was good for my growth, spiritual, mental, everything. Got out of the comfort zone and took on a new challenge and found out a lot about myself coming out here by myself and just wanting to make a career in the NFL.

“It still wasn’t certain after four years there and coming out here on a one-year deal and whatnot. There were a lot of things, but the main thing was to just stay focused, keep God first and just play good football.”

Three seasons (and a contract extension) later, Conner is an unquestioned starter and leader for the franchise regardless of front office and personnel changes.

He’ll return to his old stomping grounds for the first time to face his former squad when the Cardinals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13.

“I’m just going to come to play,” Conner said Wednesday when asked about his return. “Just going to be me, truthfully. It’s been three years now. If it was like the following year or whatnot, maybe there would have been more to it.

“But I’ve been a Cardinal for a while now. Just going to play my game, do what I do and try to put my best on the field like I always do.”

But because he is three years removed from departing the Steel City, there’s still a whole lot of love between the two sides.

“I got a lot of respect for the people there,” Conner said. “Just love for them taking a chance, taking an opportunity on me. When I was coming out, I was dealing with all types of things, injuries and cancer and everything. The Steelers still selected me and so I’m forever grateful for that.

“And obviously, University of Pittsburgh was one of the few schools that gave me a scholarship. I got nothing but love for the people. It’s all love there.”

Feed JC

You know what would make for an all-around good day for Conner, his 15-20 friends and family expected to be in attendance along with the Cardinals offense as a whole?

Giving him the rock early AND often!

While Conner saw six offensive touches (four runs to two catches) in Arizona’s opening drive in Week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams that ended with quarterback Kyler Murray finding paydirt on a two-yard touchdown run, the running back was held to two carries and two receptions the remaining 10 possessions in the lopsided 37-14 defeat.

When the dust settled on Sunday’s tilt, Conner had just six carries for 27 yards to go along with four catches for five yards.

“It was tough, obviously I want to impact the game. It felt like we could run the ball but it’s bigger than me. I’m not bigger than the offense. I’m not bigger than the team. We got to line up and run what’s called. I’m just making sure my tape and everything is looking up to par and what it should be and just doing what’s best for the team.”

Not keeping Conner involved in some form or the other simply cannot happen moving forward if Arizona hopes to have any offensive success the rest of the way in 2023.

Yes, the score got away from the Cardinals by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, forcing Arizona to air it out much more. But it wasn’t astronomical, with Arizona down two scores (16 points) entering the final quarter.

Keeping a player of Conner’s caliber consistently involved — run or pass game — must be a priority for offensive coordinator Drew Petzing.

He knows it, too.

“Certainly in that game, I wish I would have given James more opportunities to impact the game,” Petzing said. “At some point, the lack of success and the lack of plays certainly limit that opportunity, and being behind, you get into the situation where you have to throw the ball based on time left on the clock, possessions left in the game. He’s one of our best players, has played at a high level. Need to keep him involved.”

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