Coming to Arizona Cardinals has rejuvenated RB James Conner, who wants to stick around

Bob McManaman
Arizona Republic
Nov 21, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) celebrates after rushing for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

James Conner can do something on Sunday at Soldier Field that no player in the entire 123-year history of the Cardinals has ever done if he rushes for at least one touchdown against the Bears.

It would be his sixth straight game with at least one rushing touchdown, a new club record.

If he continues scoring touchdowns at his present pace, Conner can do one step better than that. He already has 13 total TDs (12 rushing, one receiving) – all scored in the past nine games – and with six regular-season games left to play he’s on track to finish with 21. That would break David Johnson’s single-season franchise record of 20 set in 2016.

Talk about getting some bang for your bucks. The Cardinals signed the 26-year-old free agent to a one-year deal this season worth $1.75 million and he’s on the verge of setting all types of club records. Another one that is within reach is Johnson’s 2016 mark of 16 rushing touchdowns. Conner is five shy from besting it.

“Everything starts up front,” Conner said Tuesday when asked about the pride he takes in scoring touchdowns. “Coming here, they talked about how they upgraded the offensive line and my man Rodney (center Rodney Hudson) has been holding it down up front. Just the whole offensive line. It starts with him, but there’s been (running) lanes for me, there’s been openings in the end zone.

“I’m taking pride in it because I take pride in what I do. But I know this is the ultimate team game. It’s everyone playing off of one another. So, when we get in that red zone, I just want to do my part, play my role and score touchdowns.”

And despite the fact he will become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and will be in store for a big contract, Conner announced he doesn’t want to score touchdowns for anybody else.

“Man, I want to win a Super Bowl here,” he said. “I love the weather and everything this team has going and my teammates out here and the coaching staff. I don’t see why not, why I wouldn’t want to be here. We have all the resources and everything we need to be successful.

“We’re going to take it one week at a time first. We’ve got a big game against Chicago coming up. But after the season, I’ve got a lot of love for the Cardinals, so we’ll see what happens.”

Conner didn’t know what to expect after things started to turn sour for him the past couple seasons with the Steelers. He wasn’t getting the carries he got during his one and only Pro Bowl season in 2018 and Pittsburgh moved away from the running game almost entirely. He knew the Steelers weren’t going to re-sign him after last season and he couldn’t be sure what the free-agent market would offer.

It wasn’t much, he would come to learn. Nearly a full month of the free-agent signing period came and went before the Cardinals came calling.

“My options,” Conner said, “were limited.”

The Cardinals told Conner they liked his playing style and that his physical, downhill running approach was exactly what they needed to help compliment the smaller, shiftier Chase Edmonds. With Edmonds missing the past two games upon suffering a high ankle sprain on the team’s first play from scrimmage against the 49ers back on Nov. 7, Conner has become even more invaluable.

Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) runs toward the end zone to score against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

He combined for 173 total yards (96 rushing, 77 receiving) that afternoon and scored a career-high three touchdowns. In Arizona’s 23-13 victory over the Seahawks in Week 11, Conner totaled 99 yards (62 rushing, 37 receiving) and scored the game-clinching touchdown on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Conner’s 13 total touchdowns, which already represent a career high, are tied for third in the NFL and his 12 rushing touchdowns rank second. He’s become one of the Cardinals’ most dependable players in the red zone, where Arizona ranks third in touchdown percentage (70.45), and his high energy and exuberance on game days have become infectious.

“He’s the best,” Cardinals defensive end Zach Allen said. “First off, he’s like one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s a great locker room guy. But yeah, when you have a guy like that playing at such a high level it’s so easy to rally around. For us, the way that he plays, it keeps the defense off the field, and we win the time of possession battles. We’re really fortunate to have him and he’s been a huge part of our success this year.”

One of the reasons why Conner felt Arizona was the right place for him, other than the weather, the offensive line and the way the team was trending, was his chance to reunited with running backs coach James Saxon. The two were together in Pittsburgh for Conner’s first two seasons there until Saxon joined the Cardinals in 2019.

“It’s been huge,” Conner said of working with Saxon again. “I’ve got history with coach and he coaches everything, man. He’s very detailed in everything he does and so, I’ve got a feel for him. I know what he expects, I know what he wants out of us, and his message is always clear, always the same. That’s always helpful when you know exactly what’s required and what he demands.”

He’s still young, even for a running back in today’s NFL, but this season with the Cardinals seems to have not only rejuvenated Conner, but rejuvenated his career.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I feel healthy, I feel brand new. I think that’s my third time saying that, so I must mean it.”

He probably never could have imagined things turning out as well as they have – and the Cardinals (9-2) haven’t accomplished anything yet. They are enjoying what is shaping up to be a very special season, however, and think where they might be without James Conner. Especially in the red zone.

“I think they knew I could be a piece in that coming here,” Conner said. “But they kept it simple. They just told me they like my style of play. I trusted my plan and my journey, and I also trusted their plan that they had for me. When everyone’s on the same page, you get to where we are now. We’ve still got a long way to go.

“I just came, and I wanted to play my best football. My options were limited. This is the plan. It’s the Cardinals. And I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else right now.”

Note

The Cardinals on Tuesday placed running back Jonathan Ward on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, according to the NFL transaction wire.

Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at bob.mcmanaman@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch. 

News and information you can trust. Start your online subscription.