Not his 211 rushing yards, 3.5 average and two touchdowns. Not his highlight-reel hurdling of defenders. Not even his fumbling problem.
I’m sick of writing about the soap opera.
His unrelenting and unrequited demands for a contract extension. His midweek marriage in Arkansas. His Sunday off with strep throat. His agent trying to take the blame, but only making Hillis look worse. His teammates’ frustration and animosity.
But as the guy charged with writing about the Browns, it’s impossible to get away from Hillis as a compelling story — in all its forms. He was the team’s best player in 2010. He emerged from obscurity to become an instant fan favorite. He was voted the cover boy for the immensely popular Madden video game.
He will miss his fifth game of the season Sunday — the fourth straight with a hamstring injury — and his absence has had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on the offense. He can’t single-handedly fix the problems, but would help a great deal.
Coach Pat Shurmur announced Monday that Hillis had already been ruled out for the game Sunday against the Rams after he reinjured the hamstring Friday in practice. It’s an enigmatic muscle that requires time to heal properly, so there’s no sense trying to rush back. He tried that approach twice and it failed.
With no timetable for Hillis’ return and the season at its midpoint, the question facing the Browns is: Should they end the drama and put him on season-ending injured reserve?
It’s not an outlandish idea. Hillis has been a pain in Shurmur’s neck all season. The rest of the locker room could stop answering questions about Hillis and focus on the games. General manager Tom Heckert could announce the team will let Hillis leave through free agency in the offseason, and he’d no longer be the team’s problem.
Cut ties and move on.
That’s the simplest solution, but it’s not the best one for the Browns. It’s the easy way out when hard work is needed.
They seem to realize that. Shurmur said Monday the plan is to get Hillis healthy and back on the field.
On a team with far too few difference-makers, Hillis is one. He’s still the best skill player. He’s the only guy defenses have to game-plan to stop.
Let’s see if he can get healthy, get back in the lineup, recharge the running game and stabilize the entire offense. The 1,177 rushing yards, 477 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns last season weren’t a fluke. He’s 25 years old with only a year of serious wear-and-tear on his chiseled body, so he should be able to be productive again.
This isn’t to say the Browns should resume contract talks and try to lock him up for years. I’m not suggesting they ignore the troubling behavior this season. Red flags are red for a reason. They’re supposed to make you stop and think.
Hillis shouldn’t have spent 15 minutes in a throwing contest before the 49ers loss when he was inactive. Even if it didn’t stress the hamstring, it looked bad and teammates noticed.
He shouldn’t have flown to Arkansas to get married on a Tuesday, which meant skipping a day of treatment on his hamstring. Teammates expect one another to do everything they can to play, and Hillis didn’t.
That was first a problem in Week 3 with the strep throat. He shouldn’t have listened to his agent and sat out. He should’ve dressed and tried to play. If he was too sick to go on, his teammates would’ve understood and appreciated the effort. Instead, they questioned his toughness and priorities — then and now.
Hillis seems like a different guy this year, and the change has been obvious to teammates. He no longer hangs out in the locker room. He ditched the cowboy hats, cowboy boots and camouflage. He’s gone preppy.
Teammates also admit he can’t stop thinking about his contract. They understand this might be his only chance to sign a life-changing deal, but they need him to play hard and focus. They tried to convince him during a meeting last week that’s the best way to get his money.
These examples are why I appreciate the argument for putting him on IR and breaking ties. I just don’t agree it’s the wisest move.
Circumstances change and people change, so it’s best not to rush to judgment. The same people who endorse a move to IR were the ones who wanted to sign him to an extension after one good season.
We saw how that worked out with coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage after the anomaly that was 2007. Less than a year later, they were fired, but the checks kept on coming.
So the Browns would be doing the right thing by taking a breath, helping Hillis get back on the field and letting the season play out. They have half a season left to continue to gather information and formulate an opinion. That’s surely more valuable than the roster spot they’d gain by putting him on IR.
Maybe they can help him return to his former self on the field — and off. Maybe they can help him get his mind right. Maybe they can salvage something from what looks like a lost season.
Maybe the Browns can end the drama without ending the relationship with Hillis.
At least for now.