In this morning's edition of the Plain Dealer, Bill Livingston wrote a piece titled, "How Peyton Hillis won Cleveland -- and is losing it." At first, when it was just the strep throat illness that kept him out of a game and the difficulty in getting a new contract signed, fans seemed to side with Hillis despite the media's speculative reports on him. Lately, I have seen more and more fans turn on Hillis with statements such as "I could care less if he is here next year" or "trade him away, he's an ass."
Maybe it is because of my blind optimism, but I wholeheartedly disagree with those types of statements. I remain a firm supporter of Hillis and cannot wait for him to be back on the field as a member of the Browns, hopefully for years to come.
Let's flash back to last season when Hillis made a name for himself: after coming over in the trade with Denver for Brady Quinn, Hillis was thought of as the third running back (or a backup fullback) behind Jerome Harrison and Montario Hardesty. After Hardesty's injury and Harrison falling out of favor with Eric Mangini though, Hillis became the featured back. He bowled through defenders, jumped over players, and knew how to close out a game when the Browns had a lead. In the offseason, Cleveland fans supported him so much that he was voted to the cover of Madden '12.
After the lockout ended, we heard Mike Holmgren was trying to get a new deal done with Hillis. That made sense, and initial reports said that both sides agreed on the total value and length of the contract, but were in disagreement when it came to guaranteed money. You can understand the hesitation by both sides. Hillis plays a very physical style, and since he is a free agent next year, he doesn't want to lock in to a poor deal. Likewise, the Browns' front office might be hesitant in sinking a lot of guaranteed money into a guy who might end up being too worn down before long. It is a risk when you sign almost any player to a long-term deal, but if Holmgren truly believes that Hillis is our best offensive player (which he is, not including the offensive line), I see no harm in raising the offer of his guaranteed contract from a reported $3 million to somewhere around $6-7 million.
I think it is ridiculous to think that Hillis is not trying as hard this season because of his contract situation. Have our other running backs found gaping holes to run through? If you think Cleveland's offense was ineffective with Hillis in there, then how did things go over the past two weeks? It sounds weak that Hillis didn't play through an illness. It sounds weak that Hillis suffered a hamstring injury right away in his first game after that and hasn't played or practiced much since. We've been over the illness fiasco already, so I won't rehash that. Hamstring injuries aren't something you can just come back from right away without the risk of re-aggravating it. Arian Foster injured his hamstring in the preseason. He sat out Week 1, and then returned in Week 2, only to feel it get tight during the game. He sat out Week 3 before finally returning to form in Week 4. Keep in mind again that the media has been stirring the pot with a lot of these things; it's not like Hillis has suddenly become Terrell Owens and is an attention-seeker demanding he gets some respect.
I don't believe in the "Madden Curse," but he has definitely been struck with a lot of unfortunate situations this year. The latest is a PR gaffe in which Hillis did not attend a charity event he was scheduled for. Hillis said there was a miscommunication. He apologized and said he would try to make it up. I won't say it's not a big deal for the kids that were hoping to see him, but is that going to make me want him to be off the Browns roster next season?
During the offseason, SB Nation had an affiliate that was going to send one free framed picture of any current player of our choice. While I won't commit to saying he is my favorite player, I went with Hillis because as a fan, there's nothing funner than watching him play physical football. I didn't know what type of picture would arrive, but I ended up receiving it in the mail about two weeks ago: it was when Hillis leaped over a defender on the Atlanta Falcons. Hillis might not be able to look like a Pro Bowl type of player with our poorly our offensive line has done this year, but if anyone is going to help get this offense back on track, it's going to be him. I am a believer that Hillis is our running back of at least the next 2-3 years, and it is worth keeping him and focusing on more pressing areas of need such as right tackle, offensive guard, wide receiver, and safety.
Hillis might receive the opportunity to "redeem" himself (which he shouldn't have to do) this Sunday against the Houston Texans. In his morning press conference on Thursday, head coach Pat Shurmur stated that Hillis should take reps in team drills during practice later in the day. It's time to get back to football -- something that, despite what has been said, is what I believe is the only thing Hillis has been wanting to do.