OWINGS MILLS – Peyton Hillis’ surprising star turn from a year ago hit the skids this season, a curious downward spiral manufactured by injury, illness, a contract dispute and perhaps a touch of hubris.
The Cleveland Browns’ punishing running back has regressed from his status as a rugged back embraced as a poster boy for a blue-collar town into an often reviled figure.
His exit is anticipated at the end of the season as a free agent since there’s been no progress toward a long-term deal with talks shelved.
“It’s been a really rough season,” Hillis said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “It’s probably been my worst season so far from a mental standpoint and a physical one, you know, being injured and dealing and coping with the mental part of being injured. So, it’s been a real rough season for me, and all I can do from here on out is just go forward and hope the best happens.”
Hillis missed a game against the Miami Dolphins due to a case of strep throat, but acknowledged that he missed the game on advice from his agent.
At the time, contract discussions had hit an impasse. It did a lot of damage to Hillis’ reputation, and team president Mike Holmgren stated that the team would likely allow him to leave via free agency after the season.
Hillis would miss five consecutive games prior to a solid return against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday when he rushed for a respectable 65 yards on 19 carries.
Following a breakthrough season last year where he rushed for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns and wound up gracing the Madden video game cover, Hillis has generated only 276 yards and two touchdowns this fall.
Nonetheless, the Baltimore Ravens respect the 6-foot-2, 250-pound bruising runner with free safety Ed Reed comparing the former Arkansas standout to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Mike Alstott.
They’re bracing for a physical encounter with Hillis on Sunday in Cleveland.
"He’s a power runner,” free safety Ed Reed said. "It reminds me of Tampa Bay when they had Alstott in there, he kind of looks the same. That’s what you’re going to get with Peyton. He’s a hell of a back. I know he’s been hurt with that hamstring, and that’s tough on a big guy like that.
"It definitely slows him down. He looks like he’s 100 percent now after watching him in the Cincinnati game. We know we have a task with tackling that guy. He’s a hassle, but we’re definitely prepared enough for the task.”
Hillis has been through a lot this season, much of it self-inflicted wounds as his image has taken hit after hit.
Teammates confronted him during a meeting and called him out publicly, questioning his commitment to the team.
“Relationship is fine,” Hillis said. “It never was a distraction. I just think the guys got tired of everybody asking them about me, so they just wanted to confront me about it since they’re my teammates and my friends. And they just wanted to put the positive foot forward.”
And Hills sounds resigned to this possibly being his last season in Cleveland even though he said he would like to return.
His hopes for a lucrative contract extension have been extinguished.
“As far as the contract standpoint goes, I really haven’t thought about it, especially in a long time, especially since I haven’t been producing, playing, figuring I’ve just been worried and working on getting back in there playing and stuff like that,” Hillis said. “The contract talks haven’t even crossed my mind, either.”
Even though Hillis and the Browns (4-7) haven’t had a banner season, the Ravens still consider him to be a dangerous threat.
It was Hillis who busted onto the NFL scene last September with 144 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries as he piled up 180 yards of total offense against the Ravens.
He became the last running back to eclipse the 120-yard mark against the Ravens since Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl runner Adrian Peterson two years ago.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis famously guaranteed that Hillis wouldn’t duplicate his impactful performance, saying, “a blind cat will find a meal every once in a while.” And Baltimore shut Hillis down to the tune of 35 yards in the second game of the annual series
“Peyton Hillis is a professional football player,” defensive end Cory Redding said. “Regardless of how many weeks he’s been out, he still is a paid, professional football player. A lot of pride, a lot of heart, a lot of fight is going to come out of that man.
“Whenever he straps on the pads, it’s going to be war. He knows it, we know, so the best thing to do is go out there with the mindset of stopping it. We stopped him before and we can do it again.”
The Ravens know what’s coming.
Hillis’ style is brutally simple, colliding with linebackers with his helmet tilted forward, all shoulders, forearms and leg drive.
“He’s a really aggressive runner,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Everybody knows he’s Peyton Hillis, he’s got the Madden cover, and he likes to have good games against good defenses. I expect for the juggernaut to be in there and try to run down some walls.”
The Ravens rank third against the run in the NFL, surrendering only 91.5 yards on the ground per contest.
The Ravens have allowed two opposing runners to hit the century mark this season, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew and the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch.
And now that Hillis is healthy, the Ravens are facing another difficult task.
“It’s a huge challenge,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a big guy, he’s a strong guy. He’s a downhill guy. I think our guys fully understand and they know what they’re up against.”
The Browns have averaged 141 rushing yards per game over the past two games, utilizing Hillis as well as Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya.
“I think I can make a huge difference,” Hillis said. “I haven’t been out there too much, but I feel like when I get out there I can produce and help the team win.”