Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Browns' turnaround mirrors Hillis' emergence

By John Dudley
Erie Times-News
November 9, 2010

CLEVELAND - NOVEMBER 07: Running back Peyton Hillis runs the ball against the New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 7, 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

CLEVELAND -- Peyton Hillis carried three ballcaps as he walked out of the interview room Sunday afternoon. He picked the frayed, tan one -- the one that read "Cabela's," which calls itself the World's Foremost Outfitter -- and snugged it low across his brow.

Then he headed through the door, his cowboy boots clicking across the concrete floor as he disappeared down a concourse that wound through the bowels of Cleveland Browns Stadium about half an hour after a 34-14 victory over New England that cemented the Browns' status as an emerging team.

Hillis, who ran for 184 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots, has worn a lot of hats this season.

Bruising runner. Surprisingly sure-handed receiver. And, maybe, most valuable player.

Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy might be the face of the franchise, but Hillis is beginning to look like its most irreplaceable part.

And no one in the locker room appreciates Hillis more than McCoy, whose first three games as a starter have been made easier by having a battering ram behind him to crash through piles and move the chains.

"The way Peyton runs is huge," McCoy said. "He gets fired up, and that gets the offensive line fired up, which gets the whole team fired up."

As recently as Week 1, Hillis wasn't a candidate to carry the offensive burden.

The Browns drafted Montario Hardesty as the presumed running back of the future, and even after Hardesty was lost with a season-ending knee injury, the Browns figured to go with a runner-by-committee approach led by Jerome Harrison, last season's breakout star.

But after a Week 5 loss to Atlanta in which Harrison carried six times for six yards, the Browns dealt him to Philadelphia for Mike Bell and turned the running game over to Hillis, a former seventh-round pick who had posted back-to-back 100-yard games against Baltimore and Cincinnati in Weeks 3 and 4.

Hillis hasn't looked back.

Peyton Hillis runs through the grasp of New England Patriots Vince Wilfork during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Cleveland, Ohio November 7, 2010. (Reuters)

He is on pace to rush for nearly 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns and catch 60 passes. It's been said that his punishing style might make him more susceptible to injuries. Yet Hillis runs like a bull chasing a matador. On Sunday, he hurdled a tackler, who probably should have considered himself fortunate given that Hillis generally prefers to blast through them.

"Peyton does a nice job of grinding down the defense, which is fun to watch," Browns coach Eric Mangini said.

None of Hillis' contributions would have been possible had the Browns not abandoned the Brady Quinn experiment during the offseason and convinced the Denver Broncos to part with Hillis and two draft picks for the player who was once labeled as their next franchise quarterback.

Hillis arrived with about as much fanfare as you would expect for someone who took a backseat to Darren McFadden at Arkansas and never rushed for more than 348 yards in a season in college. The Razorbacks even used him as a blocking tight end during his senior season, and the Broncos selected him with their second pick in the seventh round of the 2008 draft and installed him at fullback.

It's hard not to root for a back like that, one who called Sunday's win -- in which the Browns dominated the Patriots in all three phases -- "the way football is supposed to be played."

Hillis has made it clear that, as someone overlooked as a potential feature back because of his lack of breakaway speed or less-than-stellar résumé, he can identify with his current team and its long-suffering fans.

"Three weeks ago a lot of people in the league didn't give us a chance," Hillis said, referring to the Browns' 1-5 start. "When that happens, you look in the mirror and ask, 'What are you going to do today to get better?' Me personally, a lot of people didn't believe in me, sometimes even people in my own family. So I can understand what that's all about."

Hillis raved about the Browns' offensive line, which has paved the way for 100-yard rushers in six of the past 11 games going back to last season. And the defense deserves credit, too, for holding the Super Bowl champion Saints to 17 points and the Patriots, the league's No. 1 offense going into Sunday, to 14.

Right now, though, no one in orange and black is outshining Hillis, no matter which hat he happens to be wearing.

JOHN DUDLEY can be reached at 870-1677 or

No comments: