Listen, I don’t try to live my life as a contrarian. That’s not true — I kind of do. I spend a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I have a two-hour commute that allows me to hear a lot of the sports world’s most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it’s best to take a look at the other side.
In this space, I articulate positions that are the opposite of what most people think — unpopular opinions, if you will — and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Here is my take on a very valuable second-year phenom.
The drama surrounding embattled Steelers running back (and LA Fitness basketball maven) Le’Veon Bell has been one of the dominant NFL storylines this season. The kind of "will he or won’t he" trope that you might see on some cheesy CW soap opera. No, not "Riverdale." I said cheesy soap, not the greatest non-WWE show on television. But here’s the truth: While Bell has dominated the news, James Conner has stolen the show.
Conner, who rushed for 144 total yards in 14 games as a rookie third-round pick in 2017, was a feel-good sensation during the first week of this season. He had a pair of touchdowns and 192 scrimmage yards as the Steelers were able to escape Cleveland with a tie. I know, a tie, right? Conner wasn’t really taken that seriously as a threat to keep it up, though. He was given dismissive, "isn’t that nice" accolades. The kind of thing you give to a toddler the first time they learn how to ring the doorbell on Halloween.
Conner was like the dude on those soaps who hangs out with his best friend’s girlfriend while he’s away for the summer. And you know that stuff never works. Because that guy (Bell, in this case) comes back to school in the fall and he’s just shocked and flummoxed to learn that his (former) best friend and his (now former) girlfriend are a couple. Like, Conner didn’t mean to fall in love with the Steelers’ starting running back spot. It just kind of happened.
And he didn’t just take the starting job from Bell and run with it. He might snag the MVP award, too. Well, probably not. Patrick Mahomes is going to win this thing, isn’t he? Or Todd Gurley? Conner is at least going to be in the conversation. Let me phrase that a little bit better: He should be in the conversation.
The Steelers opened with only one win in their first four games. This team was ready to circle the drain. It was the kind of season where, if Ben Roethlisberger had intimated he was going to retire after it ended, you might have actually believed him. Well, at least for a moment.
But something has changed with the Steelers over the past month. Sure, Roethlisberger has played better, as he’s done a better job of getting rid of the ball. But really, it’s Conner who’s led the Steelers back from the brink of the abyss. He’s been awesome during the team’s four-game winning streak, averaging 27 touches and 118.5 rushing yards (up from 58 in the first four weeks). In fact, he’s averaged 172.3 scrimmage yards and scored seven touchdowns in the last four games. Those are MVP-caliber numbers. The Steelers now look like one of the best teams in the AFC, one that could challenge the Patriots and Chiefs for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Conner is on pace for 2,170 scrimmage yards. Bell finished just a hair under 2,000 scrimmage yards last season. If Conner keeps pace, the Steelers will be just the second team in NFL history with two different players who recorded 1,900-plus scrimmage yards in consecutive seasons. The Indianapolis Colts were the first, with Marshall Faulk in 1998 and Edgerrin James in 1999.
Now, don’t @ me and say that Conner is a system running back. I’m ready for those takes. You would be wrong, but if you prefer to be on the losing end of an argument, be my guest.
Conner has faced a stacked box (eight defenders or more) on 30.5 percent of his rushes this season, according to Next Gen Stats. Bell faced a stacked box on nearly 20 percent of his rushes last year. The numbers, however, show that Conner has been better in those situations this year than Bell was last year. Conner is averaging 4.7 yards per rush against a stacked box with six touchdowns through eight games. The NFL average since 2017 is 3.3 yards per rush. Bell averaged 3.0 yards per rush with six TDs all of last season.
Conner has been more elusive this season in both the rushing and receiving phases of the game compared to Bell last year. Conner is better in yards after contact per rush (3.0 to 2.6), missed tackles per rush (0.21 to 0.13), missed tackles per reception (0.53 to 0.22) and missed tackles per touch (0.27 to 0.16), according to Pro Football Focus.
One area where Bell was more effective last season than Conner has been this season: running routes out of the slot or out wide. And maybe that’s where the Steelers will be most inclined to utilize Bell over Conner if and when Bell returns to the team.
But the point is, Conner is an MVP candidate. I’ve written before that Mahomes and Gurley are currently your leaders in the clubhouse. But Conner is part of that next level of guys who should be in the mix. It’s kind of like when the WWE has these tournaments for "King of the Ring" or something. You have the two guys who no doubt will be in the finals. But you also have those other guys who are credible enough to make you believe that they can win. But you know they probably aren’t going to do it.
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The Ravens are on a bye this week, which is probably for the best. They seemed like a contender in the AFC North early in the season, but they have fallen apart lately, losing three in a row. This is a time for them to get their stuff together and move forward. And if I might have a word, you guys need to dump the business with Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco being on the field at the same time. Believe me, it’s enjoyable to watch Flacco split out wide and channel his inner-Jay Cutler by doing absolutely nothing out there. It’s fun. And there are times that it works.
But enough. Coaches sometimes get it into their head that they need to show everyone how smart they are. How creative they can be. Look, John Harbaugh. You’re a great coach. A Super Bowl winner. Please don’t pretend to be Sean Payton, putting your backup quarterback out there doing things. I understand the itch. Every time the neighbor kids are out there riding skateboards, I can’t help myself but to get out there and join them. But I’m not them, and sometimes I have to let them do their own thing.
Jackson is clearly the quarterback of the future, and that’s great. It really doesn’t help your situation right now, though. Flacco is the better option at the moment, and you have a team that can still compete for a playoff spot in the AFC. If you’ve decided to play for the future, do that. Go all-in with Jackson as the starter. Don’t walk out to a dock with a fishing pole unless you are intent on using it. Otherwise, it doesn’t do anybody any good.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.
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