From his first game as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers until he walked off as a Super Bowl champion for the fourth and final time — a period of eight seasons that encompassed 116 NFL games — Franco Harris sat out with injuries just four times. He had a lot of abilities, and availability was one of them.
So he understands better than most the predicament running back James Conner is confronting as he enters his fourth season with the Steelers. In his three seasons, Conner already has missed 11 games with a variety of injuries, including six a season ago.
“As a running back, I’m very impressed with his talent — running and catching the football,” Harris told Sporting News. “But the injury part, not being able to last a season, that’s been the tough part. And being durable and reliable in that sense makes a big difference.
“As far as talent goes, to me, he has the talent to be a great NFL running back. The thing about injuries, a lot of it is luck, also. I tell people, you can get injured on any single play. That’s just the way it is. But you have to play the game knowing you want to play the whole game, and you definitely want to play the whole season to help your team.”
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Conner’s frequent struggles with injuries — a lower-leg problem in 2017, a knee issue in 2018 that cost two games of a Pro Bowl season, a recurring shoulder sprain last autumn — have led to a lot of conversations about the Steelers drafting one of several promising running back prospects in this week’s draft.
Sporting News’ latest mock draft from NFL expert Vinnie Iyer has the Steelers taking Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor at No. 49 overall; they do not own a first-round pick. Such prospects as LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Utah’s Zack Moss and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins also could be in play for the team, depending on whether they fall to midway in the second round.
Harris suggested the Steelers might want to look at the quarterback position given the way last season developed in the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, who had elbow surgery after Week 2. Former third-round pick Mason Rudolph initially showed promise, but struggled after being concussed by a high hit from Ravens safety Earl Thomas in Week 5.
“Put it this way: I always think a player can really develop and find themselves at any time. Something can change. But as of right now, I don’t feel that has happened with our quarterback position,” Harris said, referring to Rudolph and No. 3 quarterback Duck Hodges. “Now, down the line, can we find another Tom Brady? I guess every team looks for that. But as you know, most of the time, the Steelers go defense or offensive line, and we’re not going to have a shot at any quarterbacks until the second round.”
Other thoughts from Harris on the Steelers and the NFL:
On Pittsburgh trading its first-round pick (No. 18 overall) to Miami for All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: “Giving away that first-rounder for what we got was well worth it. I really liked that move.”
On the increased scrutiny that draft picks face in the current era: “They put so much time into studying things, doing things now. I know they put time into it back in the ’70s, but no way did they put that much time in that people are putting in today. It’s incredible: They’re testing guys, doing all sorts of things with guys. I didn’t get one interview. I didn’t talk to one team. Didn’t talk to anybody. There wasn’t any of that kind of stuff.”
Harris was the 13th overall pick in 1972 — the only Pro Football Hall of Fame choice from his draft class.
On the decreasing value NFL teams are placing on running backs: “Running backs are undervalued today. It makes me think of Saquon Barkley in the draft last year, and he ended up being rookie of the year. That goes to show you that a running back can still be a game-changer and make a lot of things happen. When you look at running backs today, you look at Christian McCaffrey, and what he accomplished was amazing. If they’re not going to look at controlling the ball, that sort of thing, running backs more in that style might be the demand in the future. He’s a big part of the passing game and running game.”
On what he expects from Roethlisberger in his return from elbow surgery: “I don’t worry so much about Ben. I’m guessing if he’s coming back he feels he’s at a certain level, where he can perform. And now the rest of it goes to who they surround him: Will the offensive line protect him, and will our receiving corps step up? As far as worrying about Ben and his winning attitude and wanting to do it? No doubt. He’ll go in with that type of attitude.”
On Terry Bradshaw’s comments that Roethlisberger is the best Steelers QB ever: “I wouldn’t go to battle with any other quarterback but Terry. His drive to succeed and will to win … and could he make the plays when we needed it. Wow.”
On what he expects regarding the return of NFL football this season: “I’m hoping they will allow some of us to go with social distancing. I’m hoping they call out certain seats, family members who live together and staying together so they could go to a game together. And then with the layout of the stadium, practice social distancing. I think they could do that stuff by computer … and they would scale it out to where they sit people. And have a process: One way to approach the food stand and one way to leave the food stand with social distancing. And also any lavatories. It would be like a checkerboard, I guess. Not that it would be a lot of noise and you could get energy from the crowd. But it’s something to think about.”
A businessman since his retirement who has focused primarily on nutritious foods, Harris has launched a new hydration product, AdeNation, that is available on the internet. He had the idea for a powdered mix to be added to water that would maintain proper hydration for all people — athletes and otherwise — after falling ill on a business trip and being shocked at the diagnosis: dehydration.
Harris’ company tested AdeNation during two recent football seasons in South Carolina. “This past year in South Carolina, they had their hottest summer in history, and a few of the schools used our drink. And they had had nobody get cramps or come out of the game because of dehydration or symptoms that affect you with dehydration, cramps and things like that,” Harris said.
“Sometimes you get lucky. I was talking about the draft, but you get lucky. There’ve been first-pick busts and there’s been last-round Hall of Famers. We got lucky and the formula worked.
“It was like, ‘Wow, we have a winner here.’”