DAN BICKLEY

James Conner has been the Cardinals’ MVP, a key culture setter this season

Jan 5, 2024, 4:50 PM

Running back James Conner...

Running back James Conner #6 of the Arizona Cardinals warms up before the NFL game at State Farm Stadium on October 08, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. The Bengals defeated the Cardinals 34-20. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Running backs are like dinosaurs. They once ruled Earth.

Thanks to James Conner, we are treated to pleasant reminders in Arizona.

Entering a Week 18 battle with the Seahawks, Conner has the opportunity to become the rare Cardinals running back to exceed 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He needs 110 yards to reach a coveted plateau he’s only accomplished with yards from scrimmage, never on rushing yardage alone.

Hence, Sunday’s game will likely and should be the unofficial James Conner Appreciation Day at State Farm Stadium, even with all the Seattle fans in attendance. And if you thought the Cardinals were motivated to get Jonathan Gannon a victory in Philadelphia, you can bet they are yearning to reward the most impactful alpha male of the group.

Conner is clearly the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2023, a violent player who has done far more than balance the offense, providing comfort and safety for quarterback Kyler Murray, who was returning from major knee surgery.

Conner has inspired a bad football team to greater heights. He has rewarded spectators with an uncompromising physicality, and his special blend of courage and toughness has nourished the fan base through a 12-loss season.

Face it: Running backs aren’t what they used to be in today’s NFL. They are diminished and discarded, easily replaceable, a foolish long-term investment from a financial standpoint. That’s because too many have failed to deliver after receiving lucrative contracts. And too many lose their nerve and their appetite once there’s real money in the bank.

They become depreciating assets, sitting ducks, scared chess pieces looking to get off the board as quickly as possible. The scent of fear they bring to a football field is like chum in the water to most NFL defenses.

Conner is dramatically different. His debut season in Arizona was a revelation, unveiling a dual-threat player who was great at catching passes; who had the rhythm and footwork of a wide receiver; who was unstoppable in the red zone, scoring a whopping 18 touchdowns.

For my money, he’s been even better in 2023. He sent Patrick Peterson sailing with a vicious stiff-arm in Pittsburgh. He’s closed out games while turning defenders into mush, late-game businessmen who no longer wish to engage in mortal combat. He has thrilled with the Braveheart brand of joy that comes with the true battering-ram legends at the position, from Earl Campbell to Walter Payton.

Conner is the kind of player who makes football more than a game. It goes way deeper than that.

More than anybody on the roster, Conner has given the Cardinals their hardcore toughness, their defiance, their fighting attitude and a swagger that far exceeds their place in the standings. With all due respect, he has meant more than Budda Baker, the Cardinals’ only Pro Bowl representative at the moment.

So, a tip of the cap to the former general manager. Steve Keim might’ve lost his grip and his way after building the Cardinals into a NFC power, but he had the good sense to twice sign James Conner at a time when it was unfashionable to attach big dollar signs to running backs.

In the end, he gave the new regime exactly what it needed to build a new culture in Arizona: a player forged from steel and iron, where no quarter is asked or given. The kind of player who made football great in the first place.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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