It all started three years ago when the Broncos took Hillis with the 227th pick of the 2008 NFL Draft and accordingly signed him to the same kind of lackluster three-year deal you’d expect any seventh-round selection to receive.
Last season, however, after being traded to Cleveland and finally winning a starting role, Hillis emerged as one of the NFL’s most productive players, finishing with almost 1,200 rushing yards, almost 500 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns.
Put it all together and you now have a top-10 running back being paid like an unproven rookie and, needless to say, the running back in question is not exactly thrilled about the situation, nor should he be.
What makes Hillis’s blunder of a season so strange, however, is not simply that he’s upset about his contract, as many players find themselves in a similar dilemma every year it seems, it’s that his behavior and on-field presence has been very peculiar all year long, too. While he insists the two are unrelated, he hasn’t fully convinced the general public it’s merely a coincidence.
The first seemingly harmless incident took place in Week 3, when Hillis sat out against the Dolphins because he had strep throat.
OK, sounds reasonable enough.
Then news broke that Hillis had actually chosen not to play that day on the advice of his agent.
Granted, all evidence suggests the running back was legitimately sick that day, but why on earth would his agent be the one to make the call, and not a doctor, or his coach, or Hillis himself?
Three weeks later and things grew even weirder. Hillis was mysteriously benched during the first quarter of a game against Oakland in Week 6—or so it would seem, as the Browns waited until the second half to tell everyone he’d actually sustained a hamstring injury, and that’s why he hadn’t been playing.
OK, a little delayed, perhaps, but logical nonetheless. The running back was injured so he sat out. Got it. Makes perfect sense.
Then, later in the same game, Hillis inexplicably returned to action, appearing for pass protection on two fourth-quarter plays.
After the game, Browns coach Pat Shurmur couldn’t seem to get his story straight about why Hillis had returned, and at one point during the interim between the running back’s appearances, reporters had even been told that the running back had in fact not been injured at all.
Finally, as if that weren’t enough, Cleveland conspiracy theorists felt their collective eyebrows raise even higher this past Halloween, when Hillis was a no-show for a charity event at a local Boys and Girls Club, even after his appearance had already been confirmed by both his brother and his agent. Then the eyebrows raised even higher after the financially frustrated former fullback re-injured his hamstring in practice on Nov. 4, just when it seemed he might finally be ready to turn this season around.
So, what’s really going on in Brown Town? Is Hillis actually hurt or has he just found a creative way to stage a holdout without blatantly defying his team?
Is he injured?
Or just disgruntled?
It’s pretty disturbing the situation has deteriorated enough that we even have to ask the question in the first place, but the answer, fortunately, is not nearly as troubling.
Peyton Hillis is obviously disgruntled, but unless he’s also completely insane, chances are he is legitimately injured, too.
First, the easy part: Hillis’ frustration over the size of his paychecks this season is unquestioned and, to some extent, totally understandable.
Hillis is set to make $555,000 this season. That’s the same or more than several elite backs (like Ray Rice, Matt Forte Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy, to name a few) but is less than what 49 other running backs will make this year, 47 of which produced fewer yards from scrimmage last season than Hillis.
It’s a rational gripe for Hillis to make, then, and even though his value can only be evaluated on a single season at this point, you can’t blame the guy for trying to cash in when the opportunity presents itself, especially as a running back.
Earlier this season, Hillis publicly admitted the situation “worries” him and that he’s simply trying to “roll with the punches,” and, outside the public eye, his own teammates have expressed concern the dispute has left him in an uncharacteristic funk that’s affecting the whole locker room.
Is Peyton Hillis exagerrating the extent of his injuries this season?
But is he so disgruntled he’s actually faking or exaggerating injuries to try and send a message to Cleveland’s front office?
The problem with this strategy—assuming anyone were crazy enough to attempt it in the first place, that is—is how counterproductive it would be to Hillis’ ultimate goal: making more money.
There’s a big difference between a superstar who refuses to play and one who can’t play because of injury, and if Hillis really is somehow under the impression that difference won’t also show in the contract offers soon to be thrown his way, he’s got another thing coming.
Nobody wants to sign an injured player—at least not to a lucrative deal—and the more injured a player is perceived to be, the lower by definition his value becomes.
Peyton Hillis had a great season last year. The more time he misses this year due to injuries, however, the harder it’ll be to capitalize on that success, and if he really thinks the solution to his current problem is to pretend to be hurt just to try and stick it to the man, it just might be Hillis himself who gets stuck when all’s said and done.
Fellow back Chris Johnson used last season’s dominance to stage a successful mini-holdout just this past summer and was handsomely rewarded with a four-year extension worth around $50 million in return.
But Johnson’s health was never in question, nor was his ability to produce consistently after completing three consecutive seasons with more than 1,200 rushing yards and at least 10 touchdowns.
Hillis can say neither of the above and at this point is more on track to pull a Steve Slaton this offseason than he is a CJ2K: Slaton was a third-round pick who shined in his rookie season with the Texans in 2008 by rushing for more than 1,200 yards but failed to reproduce the same magic his sophomore season and was accordingly released by Houston after battling injuries and lackluster stat-lines all year long.
Slaton was signed by Miami to a four-year deal worth only $2.4 million, far short of the $10 million in guaranteed money Hillis is rumored to be asking for and much closer to what Hillis can expect to receive if his subpar 2011 campaign continues to unfold the way it has so far.
Finally, what really ought to confirm the legitimacy of Hillis’ injury troubles this season beyond all doubt is the opportunity the situation has given the running back’s replacements to step up in his absence.
The only way a ludicrous scheme like this might work is if the offense in question needed the missing player so sorely they had no choice but to cave, and while the Cleveland offense has certainly had its share of struggles this season (the unit is currently ranked 30th overall), young guns Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya have both appeared sufficient at times in the games Hillis has missed.
Neither tally is anything to gloat over, but both are on par with Hillis’ best performance this season (94 yards in Week 2), and considering the near-universal emergence of the timeshare backfield in today’s NFL, that’s definitely not the kind of comparison Hilis would willingly want to draw if he knows what’s good for him.
It’s obviously been a rough season for Peyton Hillis, and clearly there have been moments along the way that would make even the most skeptical NFL observer scratch their head in wonder.
But to think this guy is actually choosing to sit, purely out of frustration, when doing so only hurts his chances of landing the very contract his shenanigans are intended to secure?
If you’ll buy that, History Channel has a box set it would like to sell you, too.
Follow me on Twitter: @RussPunt