NFL Nation: Madden NFL 12

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
Memo to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski: You may want to reconsider.

In a way that only "Gronk" can, the Pro Bowl tight end is petitioning Patriots fans online to be on the cover of "Madden NFL 13." Gronkowski is currently facing fellow Pro Bowler Wes Welker in the preliminaries to determine who enters the 32-player tournament. Here is the AFC East blog's "Madden" link from earlier this week.

Gronkowski wants Patriots Nation behind him, but there is bound to be some hesitancy. The "Madden Curse" is one of the strongest in all of sports. Last year it claimed Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis, who had one of the strangest and injury-riddled seasons in recent memory.

Gronkowski has enough on his plate following offseason ankle surgery. He was still on crutches in the video he posted. If Gronkowski doesn't want further injuries and problems next season, it's better that someone else gets the "Madden" cover.
NFL IllustrationPeyton Hillis does not believe in the Madden curse and says he's looking forward to bucking the trend.
Whether you believe in the infamous "Madden curse" or not, it's worth noting the popular video game series is undefeated when it comes to injuring players in the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis received a great honor Wednesday by becoming the third AFC North player on the "Madden" cover. He capped an amazing run through the tournament by beating Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in the finals. But history suggests Hillis should beware, because once selected, players in this division have not been able to avoid injuries.

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was the most recent AFC North player on the "Madden" cover in 2009. Coming off a Super Bowl victory, things immediately went downhill the following season as Polamalu injured his knee in Week 1 and missed 11 games. The Steelers imploded without their star safety by failing to defend their title and missing the playoffs.

In 2004 Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was on the cover. He broke his wrist but only missed one game. He tried to play through the injury but it wasn't enough, as the Ravens missed the postseason. The following season Lewis injured his thigh and missed 10 additional games.

Will Hillis do what Lewis and Polamalu could not by avoiding injuries in 2011? Hillis believes he can.

"For people to believe in this so-called curse, I can't wait to prove people wrong," Hillis told Wednesday. "From what I believe and where I am in my spiritual life, it would be good to prove them wrong in that sense.”

The Browns cannot afford to lose Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards last season. They do not have many weapons on offense and relied heavily on Hillis in both the running and passing game. Cleveland's 2010 season tanked towards the end when Hillis injured his ribs.

Cleveland is hoping second-year tailback Montario Hardesty can come back strong from a torn ACL. The team also will explore getting another running back in this week's NFL draft.

Based on the lengthy history of the "Madden curse," adding insurance behind Hillis is probably a good idea.

Cleveland Browns fans have spoken.

After millions of votes over the past five weeks, Browns running back Peyton Hillis will grace the cover of the popular "Madden NFL 12" video game. Hillis, a No. 10 seed, capped his amazing run through the tournament by beating Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and No. 3 seed Michael Vick in the finals. It was the fifth time Hillis upset a higher seed.

After just one season, Hillis has quickly captured the hearts of Browns fans, who came out in droves to support the tailback. He was acquired last year in an offseason trade for another popular Cleveland player, quarterback Brady Quinn.

Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 13 total touchdowns in 2010 to become one of the few bright spot for the Browns, who were 5-11. Now Hillis will try to duplicate that success despite his newfound popularity and the history of the vaunted "Madden curse," which has impacted past players on the cover such as Troy Polamalu, Brett Favre and Vick.

"For people to believe in this so-called curse, I can't wait to prove people wrong," Hillis said on Wednesday. "From what I believe and where I am in my spiritual life, it would be good to prove them wrong in that sense."

To win the tournament, Hillis defeated Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Vick in the finals.
Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis joined Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on Wednesday to discuss the finals of the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament. The results will be announced later today.

Hillis is surprised he made it this far and had no idea he was this popular. Browns fans have come out in droves to support Hillis during this tournament, where he's upset four straight higher seeds to make it to the finals.

Here are some other thoughts from Hillis:

On the Madden curse:

Hillis: For people to believe in this so-called curse, I can't wait to prove people wrong. From what I believe and where I am in my spiritual life, it would be good to prove them wrong in that sense.

On his football idols growing up:

Hillis: My football idol growing up, I was named after Walter Payton, but my idols at RB were Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.

On his running style and longevity:

Hillis: When I play the game, I feel that I need to put it all into it. I don't care if I play 2 or 5 years. I just want to put it all into it. I don't think players will pick that up, they want longevity.

For the full chat transcript, click here.
Tom HeckertAP Photo/Amy SancettaBrowns GM Tom Heckert has built his reputation on doing solid work in the draft.
BEREA, Ohio -- When you think of the face of the 2011 Cleveland Browns, high-profile president Mike Holmgren is the first person who comes to mind.

After Holmgren, quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs and tailback Peyton Hillis might be next. They're among the few Browns players known on a national level. McCoy made his name at the University of Texas, Cribbs is a former Pro Bowler, and Hillis has a chance to become the "Madden NFL 12" cover boy next week following a breakout 2010 season in which he rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

But as you continue down the list, eventually you will come across arguably the most important person in the organization: general manager Tom Heckert.

Holmgren has final say in Cleveland. But he is not the person laying the groundwork for the team behind the scenes.

Quietly, Heckert and his staff have worked hard to add talent to what was once a very thin roster. Last year, the Browns signed key veteran free agents such as tight end Benjamin Watson and linebacker Scott Fujita, in addition to completing a cunning trade with the Denver Broncos for Hillis in exchange for former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.

But the draft is where Heckert has built his reputation.

Heckert joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001 as director of player personnel and worked his way up to general manager five years later. During his stint, Philadelphia went to four consecutive NFC championship games and made the playoffs in seven of Heckert's nine seasons in the front office. He had a major hand in the Eagles' acquisition of recent draft picks such as tailback LeSean McCoy, tight end Brent Celek, quarterback Kevin Kolb and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

Heckert continued his draft success in Cleveland last season. The Browns acquired three starters in the first three rounds -- first-round corner Joe Haden, second-round safety T.J. Ward and McCoy in the third round.

Now the Browns have a young nucleus to build around as Heckert tries to work his magic in Year 2.

"I think last year we did a pretty good job," Heckert said in his pre-draft news conference Thursday. "Media-wise there were questions whether T.J. was worth the pick, and we said 'this guy is a good football player. He is going to come in here and start for us and he is worth that pick.' You can try to get cute and say maybe he'll be there later in the second round, so you try to trade down and you lose him. How stupid is that? If you like the guy, take him. Don't try to get too cute."

Getting cute is not what Heckert is about, and he definitely hasn't put himself out there to receive all the credit.

This week the Browns notified the local media that Heckert would hold a solo news conference, and people noticed that the charismatic Holmgren wasn't on the schedule. It was one of the few times since joining the Browns that Heckert addressed the media without the shadow of Holmgren looming over him, presumably to help raise Heckert's low profile.

Working in the shadows is nothing new for Heckert. Eagles head coach Andy Reid commanded the spotlight in Philadelphia while Heckert worked diligently behind the scenes to help find great players year after year.

Heckert's current boss has made it a point to express his appreciation.

[+] EnlargeTom Heckert and Joe Haden and Mike Holmgren
AP Photo/Mark DuncanTom Heckert, left, and Mike Holmgren, right, spent their first-round pick last year on corner Joe Haden, center, who had six picks as a rookie.
"Tom Heckert is the real deal," Holmgren said recently. "The people that work with him, our personnel department, they do their jobs and they do them very well. If I put on my coach hat for a moment, that's a real encouragement to Pat [Shurmur] and the coaches."

This year's draft may go down as one of the most important of the Holmgren-Heckert regime. Cleveland holds eight draft selections, including the No. 6 overall pick in the first round.

The Browns are coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, but there is optimism that Cleveland is finally heading in the right direction. If things go as planned for the Browns, this may be the highest draft pick for Heckert and Holmgren in the next several years. In what's considered a deep and talented draft, the Browns cannot afford to miss with their top pick.

"If we end up staying at where we're picking, we are going to get a good football player," Heckert said confidently. "There are six guys, and we are going to get a good football player. Obviously you don't want to be picking up there all the time, but that's the nice thing about it."

The mountain the Browns are trying to climb is steep.

The rival Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are unrelenting within the division. They are well-run organizations, perennial contenders in the AFC, and they don't make many mistakes in personnel. That raises the bar for Cleveland to do the same when finding players.

After several front-office failures over the past dozen years, Heckert's track record and experience as general manager give the Browns their best chance. But to make up ground in the AFC North, Cleveland must have another solid draft for the second year in a row, which is not an easy task.

Any big mistakes next week could keep the Browns at the bottom of the pack. So the pressure is on.

"Just try to not force anything," Heckert said of his draft philosophy. "It's easier said than done. ... Once the board is set, I don't think anyone is going to sit there and start jumping guys off their draft board. It happens in the whole process where you may say 'whatever the position is we need this,' so you maybe make the guy better than he is. You just have to be careful of doing that. It happens. I've been guilty of it, just like everyone else. It's a tough thing to do, but you have to be smart about it."
While fans of contending teams don't seem too bothered that their star player was knocked out of the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament, Cleveland Browns fans are treating this offseason event like their Super Bowl.

Browns running back Peyton Hillis, a No. 10 seed, has made an improbable run to the championship final of the cover tournament to face Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Thanks to the overwhelming support of Cleveland fans -- and perhaps a boost from rival AFC North fans -- Hillis has beat higher seeds in four consecutive weeks, including the most recent upset of Green Bay Packers quarterback and No. 1 seed Aaron Rodgers.

Most fans don't want the vaunted "Madden curse" to impact their teams, yet the Dawgpound is embracing the challenge. But should they?

As we found out late last season, if Hillis gets hurt Cleveland's chances of winning are slim. The Browns don't have a lot of offensive weapons and struggled to score last year despite Hillis' career season.

Most Browns fans already believe their pro teams are cursed. The Cleveland sports curse, as it's often called, has prevented the city from winning any major pro title since 1964 when Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown led the Browns to an NFL title.

Since then it's been nothing but heartache, year after year, which is why Browns fans are looking at this video game curse as small potatoes. But is this a wise move?

Vote on whether the Dawgpound should be concerned about Hillis and the "Madden curse" in our SportsNation poll, and share your thoughts below.
I knew Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis gained popularity following his breakout season in 2010. But is he popular enough to be on the "Madden NFL 12" cover?

The EA Sports cover tournament has reached the Elite Eight and Hillis, a No. 10 seed and dark horse of the tournament, is in strong standing to pull off another upset against a No. 6 seed, Kansas City Chiefs tailback Jamaal Charles. As of midweek Hillis has 58 percent of the voting, which closes this weekend.

Hillis is putting together a Virginia Commonwealth-like run through the tournament. He's already knocked off higher seeds Ray Rice (No. 7) of the Baltimore Ravens and Matt Ryan (No. 2) of the Atlanta Falcons.

Place your votes if you want Hillis to advance to the Final Four, where he would likely meet Green Bay Packers quarterback and No. 1 seed Aaron Rodgers.