Interventions are usually reserved for dire family circumstances and bad television programming, and they’re rarely conducted by football players.
But that’s where Peyton Hillis sat Wednesday morning, greeted by about eight veteran teammates. In his Friday column Yahoo’s Michael Silver focused on Hillis and his abrupt downfall this season driven by injuries and primarily his growing discontent with his contract situation.
Instead of the dominant and strong downfield runner that emerged last year and appeared on the cover of Madden 12, the Browns have seen an entirely different Hills. This Hillis is a player who seems mentally removed, missing games because of strep throat and being a no-show at a local charity event because of a miscommunication.
We can confirm the presence of one emotion: continued despair. An anonymous player told Silver that he misses the old Hillis, a guy who was a positive and upbeat teammate.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says one Browns veteran. “Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team – but now he’s like a different guy. It’s like he’s in a funk that he can’t get out of, and it’s killing us, because we really need him. And we’ve told him that. But we’re at the point where we just don’t know what to do.”
The problem with Hillis is a common one among NFL running backs. He’s missed the Browns’ last two games with a hamstring injury, and he missed the first two days of practice this week with the same ailment. He was trying to be that tough, resilient teammate today and returned to practice, but the result was a re-aggravation of the injury and likely another week on the sideline.
A year after exploding Hillis has regressed to become just another injury-prone, underachieving running back who wants a paycheck. That crude classification isn’t fair for a player at a position where the gradual decline often begins at the age of 28, only a few years after an RB’s prime. But that’s the harsh reality in the NFL, and it’s a reality that’s become more hardened and firm around front offices with Tennessee’s Chris Johnson and Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams having abysmal seasons after they signed lucrative contracts this past summer.
Hillis is 25, and he entered this season making a measly $600,000 in the final year of his rookie contract after 1,177 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns last year. He feels Matt Forte’s pain, the Bears’ running back who has the same base salary as Hillis this season and has 672 yards on the ground in seven games. Sadly, though, even if they have productive years left, both Hillis and Forte are already approaching the age where teams are leery of a long-term investment.
Each run that ends with CJ2K getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage costs Hillis and Forte millions. Caution will reign supreme with general managers and owners observing that six of the league’s top 10 rushers are 26 or younger, and one of the exceptions is Buffalo’s Fred Jackson, who’s on pace for his first 300-carry season at the age of 30. Forte turns 26 next month, and Hillis will blow out the same number of candles in January.
Running backs sign on to be used, abused, and then suddenly dumped. That’s the job description, and the employees don’t have to like it. Their options are to play through their disgust like Forte, or curl up in their shell so tightly that a locker room intervention is needed.
Hillis has chosen option No.2.