Conner tried to get up but his body wasn’t cooperating. He winced a bit and then put one hand on each side of his locker and pulled himself upright.
That’s the toll a season-high 25 carries and three catches takes on a body. It’s a workload Conner hasn’t experienced since he had 31 carries in a Sept. 2018 overtime tie as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. His effort Sunday paid off with 120 rushing yards -- Conner’s first 100-yard game with the Cardinals -- and 20 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Even though Arizona lost, falling to 4-8 with five games left, Conner and his teammates felt his performance was a long time coming.
“The workload, I wanted to get it going, so I was overdue, me personally in the run game just to get something going," Conner said. “But, yeah, it just sucks. Lost the game. So, it wasn't enough.”
Conner wasn’t the only one who wanted to see him carry the ball more.
“I've been asking for it for a while,” said right tackle Kelvin Beachum. “Great to see him going like that. When you put a running back on the safety or running back on the corner consistently, we have results like that, and we found a way to put one of our best players on the team on their corners and safeties and think over time they wore down.”
For most of Sunday’s game, Conner controlled the Cardinals on offense and dictated how the Chargers could defend them, which hasn’t happened often this season.
The Cardinals haven’t been able to rely on the run game to burn clock and control the pace of the game because they’ve trailed more often than they’ve led. On Sunday, however, Arizona was the team in control early and Conner was a major factor in that. He had 54 yards in the first quarter.
Beachum watched the Chargers react in real time in an effort to control Conner.
“I think they did a really good job of adjusting and finding ways to stunt up front just to keep James off of those safeties and trying to keep it somewhat within the box,” Beachum said. “So, we gotta make some more adjustments.”
Getting Conner more involved was part of the game plan, coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
“When you can get him going early usually is a good sign for our offense,” he said.
It was the first time the team had more rushing attempts than passing attempts since a Week 4 win over the Carolina Panthers. Hearing that Conner had his first 100-yard game as a Cardinal brought a smile to the face of left tackle Josh Jones in an otherwise glum locker room.
The goal Sunday, Jones said, was to clear the line enough so Conner “can go hit his head on the goal post.”
But when the Cardinals needed Conner the most, they didn’t use him.
On fourth-and-1 from their own 34 with 7:12 left in the second quarter, the Cardinals called for a pass instead of giving Conner the opportunity to bulldoze his way for the needed inches.
“He's freaking huge,” wide receiver A.J. Green said of the 6-foot-1, 233 pound back. “... You saw the move he put on the corner. He can make a lot of guys miss. Happy he’s on our team.”
Quarterback Kyler Murray instead threw an interception, which turned into the Chargers taking the lead, 14-10, with a touchdown shortly thereafter.
The quarterback said Conner’s 120 yards were “a step in the right direction as far as the run game.” Arizona’s rushing scheme was impacted last weekend when offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Sean Kugler was fired in Mexico City and sent home to Arizona on Monday morning for allegedly touching a woman inappropriately. That left the responsibility of designing the run game up to a committee of assistant coaches, Kingsbury said last week. The Cardinals had just 67 yards rushing in the loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Whatever the design was this week, it worked. Now the Cardinals hope it continues.
The more Conner can run like he did Sunday, the more pressure it’ll take off Murray, Jones explained. And the more it’ll wear down defenses.
Even in a loss, Conner’s showing can be a turning point in an otherwise lost season.
“I think it can be,” Beachum said. “The light is still on. It's very, very dim, but the light is still on and we have an opportunity to come out of this bye [next weekend], come out a little healthier and see what we can take it from there.”