December 21, 2014

Elyria
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Does race matter as Peyton Hillis nears rushing milestone?

Peyton Hillis is a virtual lock to reach 1,000 yards rushing Sunday in Buffalo. He needs just 38 and will face the Bills’ last-ranked run defense.

Hillis would be the ninth Brown to hit the milestone.

He’d be the NFL’s first white running back to reach 1,000 since Craig James in 1985. The Browns have never had a white rusher reach a grand.

I know Hillis’ place in franchise history is relevant, but how about his race? Is Hillis’ skin color newsworthy?

“It shouldn’t matter,” one of the Browns said last week.

I agree. But to many people, it does.

Hillis’ contact-seeking and fight-for-every-inch style has endeared him to Browns fans of all shapes, sizes and colors. His down-home, team-first, Cleveland-rocks attitude has increased his appeal even further.

But there’s no denying his race has helped his popularity among a segment of the fan base. You can call it close-minded or human nature, but it’s a fact that some people relate better to people who look like them.

When you put that person in a profession/position where he assumes an underdog role, the attraction grows. Sylvester Stallone made millions on the idea of the Great White Hope in boxing’s heavyweight division. The same theory would apply to a female jockey or race-car driver competing in a male-dominated world.

Hillis’ breakthrough is a remarkable story regardless of the race component. He was discarded by the Broncos, began training camp as the Browns’ third option and has become the team’s MVP.

He ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in eight categories and has a chance to make the Pro Bowl. Not bad for a seventh-round draft pick who had 88 carries before this season.

The lack of white feature backs in the NFL makes Hillis’ story stand out even more. The Browns haven’t had one since the improperly nicknamed “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell in the early 1990s.

Danny Woodhead has become a cult hero in New England, in part because he’s 5-foot-9 and in part because he’s white. Toby Gerhart was the NCAA’s leading rusher in 2009 but some scouts speculated he fell to the second round because he’s white.

The point of this isn’t reverse discrimination.

NFL scouts are looking for the best players regardless of color.

But just as the talent evaluators get used to seeing a prototype at each position — linebackers must be at least 6-foot, 250 pounds — they could fall into the trap of assuming the best backs are black. When someone like Hillis or Gerhart challenges that, it’s a risk to proclaim him worthy of a first-round pick or project stardom.

This also isn’t the white version of the bias against black quarterbacks in the not-too-distant past, when GMs and owners assumed they didn’t have the intangibles to lead their teams. This stereotype, driven by prejudice, lasted too long and only moved into the background after Doug Williams won a Super Bowl and a number of other black quarterbacks followed with success.

Hillis’ story doesn’t have the same gravity. His race in his place in history is just a side note. Interesting? Perhaps. Newsworthy? Debatable.

Hillis thinks it’s neither.

“I’m a human just like everybody else is a human,” he said. “I don’t think race really matters. Guys on this team look at me as a person, not as an image or a race.”

I don’t understand the animosity of fans toward quarterback Jake Delhomme. I know he’s been shaky at times, but why all the hate? Why the continued calls for Seneca Wallace, a career backup with a track record that falls miles short of Delhomme’s?

Delhomme’s season was derailed by a high ankle sprain in the opener. He followed orders and returned too soon when needed against Atlanta, only to reinjure the ankle. He became a willing mentor to Colt McCoy.
Then he makes a couple of ill-advised throws in his return and everybody’s all over him — despite leading the winning drive against Carolina.

He played mistake-free against Miami until Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll made a good read and jumped a quick hook to tight end Benjamin Watson. Carroll dropped the interception, yet fans continue to rip Delhomme. Where were the same callers when McCoy almost threw three or four picks against Jacksonville?

I’m not saying Delhomme’s the long-term answer. But he’s won two straight, is a great leader and will be one of the league’s top backups in 2011.

Mangini’s future

Coach Eric Mangini seems on course to return for a third season after back-to-back close wins, but it isn’t a done deal.

The final four weeks will determine his future. A 2-2 finish should do the trick.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.