Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Friday, December 2, 2011
Browns' Hillis outrunning the drama

Associated Press

BEREA, Ohio -- Peyton Hillis' dramatic season has taken another sudden turn -- in a positive direction.

And the final act could be fascinating.

One week into his return from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for five games, the Browns running back appears to have finally outrun weeks of injury, controversy, rumor and hearsay. Hillis is playing football and enjoying every second.

"Most definitely," he said. "I'm having fun. I'm enjoying myself being here and I'm enjoying my teammates. And I'm just going out there looking for a win, looking for what I can do to help the team win."

He's again the center of attention, but this time it's for all the right reasons.

Earlier this week, Hillis allowed teammate Tony Pashos to place "Ron Paul for President" bumper stickers and buttons on his clothing for an interview session. The light-hearted moment showed that Hillis, the Madden video game cover boy, is not being treated as an outcast by the Browns, some of whom felt he had become a distraction.

Hillis has found his stride during a season in which he had lost almost everything. He's back just in time for the Browns, who face a daunting December schedule with two games apiece against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, tyrants of the AFC North.

Hillis returned last week for his first game since Oct. 16 and rushed for 65 yards on 19 carries in Cleveland's 23-20 loss to Cincinnati. With Hillis back, the Browns were able to run the ball effectively while building a 10-point lead in the third quarter before the Bengals rallied.

For the first time this season, Hillis ran with the same rhino-in-shoulder pads authority he displayed in 2010, when he powered to nearly 1,200 yards, scored 11 touchdowns and became a Cleveland cult hero.

Hillis said he was initially tentative because of his injury.

"Because you're coming off a short turn there, you're worried about hurting yourself," he said. "You went out there, just went through the motions a little bit, but then you start to feel good. The rest of the game you got excited and you're happy and took it from there on out."

Hillis hit the hole hard and moved the pile. He can't hold anything back Sunday when the Browns (4-7) host the Ravens (8-3), who come in well-rested.

Many backs would buckle at the thought of bashing into Baltimore's intimidating front seven, but Hillis isn't one of them. He had his breakout against the Ravens last season, gaining 144 yards and earning the respect of Baltimore defenders, who haven't given up that many yards to a back since.

"He is a really aggressive runner," Ravens end Terrell Suggs said. "Everybody knows he is Peyton Hillis; he has the Madden cover. He likes to have good games against good defenses. I expect for the juggernaut to be up in there and try to run down some walls."

The Browns need to establish the run to keep the Ravens from an all-out assault on quarterback Colt McCoy, whose most effective pass may be handing the ball to Hillis.

Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur believes Hillis is ready to carry the same load as last week -- and then some.

"He handled a little more than I thought he would (last week) and then his body responded pretty well after the game," Shurmur said after Friday's practice. "He'll be in there playing. In my mind he's healthy, so we'll just keep giving him the ball."

That's fine with Hillis.

"I'm starting to get back in the groove of things," he said.

While he was injured, Hillis, who also missed one game earlier this season with strep throat, struggled to stay positive. He was hurting on the inside and out, and the weeks of inactivity seemed to cause a rift between Hillis and his teammates, who grew tired of being asked about him not playing.

He went from being a contributor to a distraction, prompting several of the team's leaders to pull him aside and clear the air during a meeting.

Browns tight end Benjamin Watson said Hillis' relationship with his teammates wasn't as strained as it appeared.

"He never went anywhere," Watson said. "The whole thing was a bigger deal on the outside than the inside. He's been here every day. Even if a guy isn't at practice they are still around, so it wasn't as big a deal among us as it seemed to be.

"It wasn't MTV's Celebrity Intervention or anything."

Still, there was an uneasy tension that seems to have disappeared. On Thursday, Hillis, at the suggestion of Pashos, wore blue Ron Paul stickers across his baseball cap and a Ron Paul button and sticker on his T-shirt as he stood in the middle of a media semi-circle. Pashos is a supporter of the presidential hopeful.

Hillis took it all in stride, smiling and laughing.

What remains to be seen is if Hillis has a future in Cleveland beyond the next five games. He wanted a new contract from the Browns, who broke off negotiations and may be willing to let him leave as a free agent.

Hillis could change their minds.

"We've got five more games," Hillis said. "I have to get ready to produce and help this team win and that's my sole focus. This is where I want to be. I love Cleveland. I know there's been some questions there, but I've always been a Clevelander in my heart. I enjoy this place and I enjoy this team and I hope to be here."

NOTES: RB Montario Hardesty said he's ready to play after missing four games with a calf injury. Hardesty looked good during the portion of practice open to media members. ... Shurmur said Jayme Mitchell will start at right defensive end. Mitchell missed last week's game with an ankle injury and had lost his starting job to Emmanuel Stephens, who is out for the season with a chest injury.