Monday, February 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Humbled back Peyton Hillis moves forward with Bucs

TAMPA

The guy who used to be Peyton Hillis stood on a new practice field, with a new team, hoping for a new start. Only his sweat was old.

Behind him, there was success, and drama, and bruised feelings. In front, there are questions, and perhaps a new chance.

Once, he was the king of Cleveland, and you bought your Madden video games with his face on the cover. He was a battering ram of a running back, as blue-collar as his city, and Browns fans loved him for his effort and his grit.

And then he wasn't, and then they didn't. Hillis fell off the top shelf with uncommon speed, and his name became a swear word in the city he once represented. He was portrayed as a guy who had become impressed by his success, as a guy who cared too much about contract and not enough about contact. He was greedy, fans said. He was eaten up by his ego.

Now he is here, starting over, training to chase down success once more. He is only 27, and he is still big (6 feet 2, 250 pounds), and he can still do some things.

If all goes according to plan, why, he could be a backup.

It is an intriguing possibility. The Bucs admire big running backs, and Hillis is certainly that. They need a short-yardage guy, and he is that, too. The backup position behind Doug Martin is unsettled, and there is still enough ability inside of Hillis to make the Bucs go "hmmm."

But first you have to wonder what happened. How does a guy gain almost 1,200 yards rushing (plus 477 receiving), and three years later he is applying for mop-up work? And how does Hillis answer this frequent question: Hey, whatever happened to you?

"To be completely honest, I don't know," Hillis says carefully. "Sometimes it feels like a million years ago and you don't remember. Sometimes it feels like five minutes ago. And sometimes it feels like forever. Some things there is no rhyme or reason for. I've been humbled over the past couple of years. I'm just trying to move forward, one step at a time."

Time was, Hillis went for several yards at a time. He was a bulldozer type who moved the pile along with him, and Browns fans loved him for it. He gained 184 yards against the Patriots in a 20-point victory in 2010. He gained 131 in a win over Carolina. Suddenly, long-suffering Browns fans had a back to admire.

Ah, but 2011 was a tangled mess of a year, and all the good Hillis had done began to unravel. His contract negotiations turned nasty. He was sick with strep throat. He pulled a hamstring, and he pulled it again. Odd headlines — "Hillis to retire and join CIA" — began to sprout. His teammates began to question him.

Former Browns teammate Joe Thomas was especially harsh.

"(As a rookie), all he cared about was winning," Thomas said at the time. "Then the next year, all he cared about was trying to get his new contract. I think he was just getting some poor guidance on how to go about his business. I don't begrudge a guy for trying to get his contract. I just think there is a right way to do it and wrong way, and the way he chose really hurt the team.

"He just wouldn't listen to anybody. People who thought they were very close friends with him … he wouldn't listen to anybody."

It is a complex thing, stardom. An athlete surrounds himself with people who tell him how good he is and how cheap his team is. Hillis is not the first player whose contract negotiations have affected his career. Put it this way: There was a reason the Browns did not bring back Hillis after 2011.

"A lot of it was just injury," Hillis says now. "The hamstring had me for four weeks, and you try to get pushed onto the field, and I strained it again. People think you're trying to sit out on purpose. That's the nature of the game. I know how it looked. Some people fault me for that. There are things I wish I could change about my approach. I wished I hadn't gotten angry or bitter. But you can't go back now. I wasn't really angry. Just bitter, and a little naive."

Things changed. Hillis gained only 587 yards in 2011, and his average went from 4.4 to 3.6 yards per carry. He had one 100-yard game all season.

The Browns had seen enough. They let their contract talks end, and they didn't blink when Hillis signed with Kansas City.

Ah, but as a town, Kansas City belongs to Jamaal Charles. Hillis carried the ball 85 times for 309 yards last year. Once again, after the season he was a free agent.

"When you're younger, you look ahead like everything is going to be roses, and it isn't like that," Hillis says. "I'm happy enough to look back and learn from my mistakes. It'll make me a better person in the future."

Will that future be here? Maybe. The Bucs liked what they saw in his workout. Hillis was in good shape, and the reliable hands were still there. For Tampa Bay, there is no risk in giving Hillis a contract. They can always cut him.

Ah, but if Hillis is right, it gives them a downhill runner who has had success in the league. In gives them a replacement for LeGarrette Blount, only with better hands and a better track record in short yardage situations. It gives them one more candidate to back up Martin.

Hillis seems to get it, finally. The Bucs have discussed their plans with him. He is here to play some fullback, some tailback. He is here to catch passes, and to block, and to run on third-and-1. He is not here to be the feature back.

He is here to play a role. Along the way, perhaps he can recapture his reputation.

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