By Tony Grossi
Extra Points …
The Hillis Affair, The Sequel: One of the most respected players in the Browns’ locker room, offensive captain Joe Thomas, has lifted the curtain on the mystery of Peyton Hillis.
Thomas was plainly outspoken in explaining how Hillis lost the faith, trust and respect of the locker room last year after carrying the team as a bell cow running back in 2010.
“He was everything people knew about him – hard-working, blue-collar, tough, would do anything for anybody on the team,” Thomas said. “All he cared about was winning, and then all of a sudden the next year all he cared about was trying to get his new contract.”
Hillis returns Sunday as a part-time role player with the Kansas City Chiefs. Judging from Thomas’ comments in the locker room on Wednesday, Hillis has not been missed.
Strep throat be damned: The soap opera with Hillis began when he returned from a 1,177-yard rushing season in 2010 and won the national fan vote to grace the cover of the popular video game, Madden 12.
There followed: two changes in his agents, failed negotiations for a multi-year deal in preseason, a famous case of strep throat that resulted in him walking out on his team hours before a kickoff at a home game, a hamstring injury that caused him to miss five games, a mid-week wedding, an intervention of teammates, and, ultimately, a parting that left not a wet eye in the locker room.
“He decided that his contract was more important than coming out and playing and helping his team win, and it left us without a running back,” Thomas said. “And then we had a few injuries that hurt us further with Montario (Hardesty) being down and Brandon Jackson, losing him in training camp.
“(Hillis) decided to go about trying to get a contract a certain way and ended up hurting the other 52 guys in the locker room. That was his decision.”
There were reports throughout the year that teammates questioned Hillis’ loyalty to the team, but nobody has really gone on the record as strongly as Thomas.
“He wasn’t real popular around here, the way he went about his business,” Thomas said. “Not that they didn’t like him as a person, just the way he hurt the team from not coming to play.”
Thomas doesn’t agree that Hillis’ problems stemmed from the Madden cover vote going to his head.
“Maybe. I think he was just getting some poor guidance on how to go about his business,” Thomas said. “I don’t begrudge a guy for trying to get his contract. This is a business for us just like it’s a business for the owners. I just think there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and the way he chose really hurt the team.”
Thomas confirmed that Hillis lost his teammates when he reported to the third game at home against Miami with a strep throat, and then left without putting on his uniform.
“You think strep throat and I don’t know whatever else injuries he had should keep you out of an NFL game? Or several?” Thomas said. “All I know is (center) Alex Mack had appendicitis, or his appendix blew up, and he played.”
Agent Kennard McGuire later took the fall for Hillis and said he advised him not to play against Miami. It was too late. Hillis’ teammates changed their opinion after that.
Thomas said, “A lot of guys tried to help him and give him guidance, but he wasn’t listening to guys in the locker room.”
Goodbye and good luck: Ultimately, Hillis’ production fell from 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010 – when then-coach Eric Mangini committed to him with two tight ends and fullback Lawrence Vickers blasting holes as his lead blocker – to 587 yards and three touchdowns.
After the season, the Browns didn’t even bother talking about a new contract. Hillis reunited with former agent Jimmy Sexton and agreed to a one-year deal with the Chiefs for a maximum of $2.8 million.
“I think it was better for both sides,” Thomas said. “At that point, the situation in here was toxic. He didn’t want to be here and players didn’t want him here and it’s better for a fresh start at that point.”
Largely because of the soap opera, and the challenges for the coaches and the quarterback, coach Pat Shurmur led the charge to replenish the position with Trent Richardson. The Browns were so committed to establishing dependability at running back, they gave up three mid- and late-round draft picks to move up one spot in the draft to secure Richardson with the third pick.
Richardson missed all of the exhibition games after needing arthroscopic surgery to fix a small cartilage irritation in his left knee. He has not missed a game and is among the league’s top running backs with 273 touches – carries and receptions – despite missing the second half of two games and playing through a painful rib injury.
“Trent’s a great player, so I think it was a good move to bring him in here,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t that Peyton was a bad teammate. It was just a bad situation and I thought he just handled himself incorrectly.
“You can’t say enough about things that Trent does for this team and how humble he is, coming off an incredibly successful career at Alabama, being the No. 3 pick, having a very successful rookie season. He’s just a great person and a great teammate. I think everyone really appreciates what he does.
“Obviously he was nicked up earlier in the season and he still goes out there and runs people over on Sunday. And I think you can appreciate that.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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