On the most recent episode of The Big Red Rage, co-host Ron Wolfley—the brother of Steelers sideline reporter Craig Wolfley—said he heard that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was upset that the organization couldn’t find a way to retain his former No. 1 running back.
“Mike Tomlin absolutely was heartbroken that they couldn’t get something done, heartbroken that James Conner was actually walking out of that organization,” said Wolfley during the show.
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This isn’t to say that Tomlin wanted Conner, 26, to remain the team’s top running back going forward; almost certainly he wanted to keep him on board as a backup.
But considering that the Cardinals signed Conner for a relatively modest $1.75 million (with a $500,000 signing bonus and $1.25 million in guaranteed salary) it seems likely that there was a financial path to keeping the one-time Pitt product in Pittsburgh. It’s also possible that surgery to correct what was reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport as an off-the-field “turf toe-type injury” may have played a role in the team’s hesitancy to re-sign Conner.
On the other hand, signing with Arizona gives Conner the opportunity to reunite with former Steelers running backs coach James Saxon, under whom Conner experienced his greatest individual NFL success, including a Pro Bowl season in 2018. Conner recently predicted that he and fourth-year back Chase Edmonds will be “one of the best” tandems in the NFL.
Najee Harris: The New No. 1 Back in Pittsburgh
But that’s all water under the Fort Pitt Bridge, and the Steelers will be moving forward with 2021 first-rounder Najee Harris as the team’s new No. 1 running back.
Certainly, Steelers players were fired up after the team used its first-round pick on Harris, who has since earned rave reviews for the potential he has demonstrated at OTAs and minicamp. Not to mention, his ability to handle the media with aplomb.
Conner’s Legacy in Pittsburgh
At the same time, Conner leaves Pittsburgh as one of the most inspirational players to ever play for the organization. His life story—told in “Fear is a Choice,” the autobiography he published last year—focuses on how he beat cancer while at the University of Pittsburgh, but also features numerous other inspirational vignettes and compelling football stories. That includes: how Conner was recruited to Pitt as a defensive end; and how he once played “meet me at the quarterback” with none other than future NFL star Aaron Donald, who has thrice won NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Los Angeles Rams.
All in all, Conner leaves the Steel City having played in 50 games (33 starts), rushing the ball 532 times for 2,302 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also caught 124 passes for 963 yards with four touchdown receptions.
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