BEREA: Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas pummeled Peyton Hillis with verbal shots Wednesday, confirming the Kansas City Chiefs running back’s dramatic 2011 season tortured at least some of his former teammates and turned them against him.
“I think it was better for both sides,” Thomas said of Hillis’ departure from Cleveland. “At that point, the situation with him here was toxic. He didn’t want to be here, and players didn’t want him here and it’s better just for a fresh start at that point.”
In April 2011, Browns fans rewarded Hillis for his breakout 2010 season by voting him to the cover of the Madden NFL 12 video game. But a contract dispute, injury and off-the-field distractions caused Hillis’ popularity and production to plummet.
The Browns let Hillis hit the open market in March, and he joined the Chiefs by signing a one-year contract worth a maximum of $2.8 million. Now with the Chiefs (2-10) preparing to visit the Browns (4-8) on Sunday, Thomas wasn’t shy about ripping Hillis at length, holding court with two waves of reporters to vent his frustration.
“It was a terrible distraction,” said Thomas, a team captain. “He crippled our offense because we ended up signing [Chris Ogbonnaya] off the street in the middle of the year, and he ended up getting hurt. We were struggling to find anybody who could carry the ball after all the injuries we had. To have Peyton going through a contract dispute and basically refusing to play, it was a big distraction.”
After the Browns traded quarterback Brady Quinn, who’s also with the Chiefs, to the Denver Broncos in exchange for Hillis and a couple of late-round draft picks, Hillis quickly transformed from a relatively unknown backup to a Cleveland sports icon. However, Hillis’ downfall was as fast as his rise. He’s now the backup to standout Jamaal Charles and has 59 carries for 193 yards (3.3 average) and a touchdown this season.
It all began when Hillis took the advice of his former agent, Kennard McGuire, and sat out Week 3 with strep throat. In Week 6, he injured his left hamstring and then missed another five games.
“You think strep throat and I don’t know whatever else injuries he had should keep you out of an NFL game? Or several?” said Thomas, who further emphasized his point by praising rookie running back Trent Richardson for playing through injuries this season. “All I know is [center] Alex Mack had appendicitis. His appendix blew up, and he played.
“[Hillis] decided that his contract was more important than coming out and playing and helping his team win, and it left us without a running back. And then we had a few injuries that hurt us further with Montario [Hardesty] being down and Brandon Jackson, losing him in training camp.”
When former Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who holds the same job with the Chiefs, called the plays for the Browns in 2010, Hillis had 270 carries for 1,177 yards (4.4 average) and 11 touchdowns to go along with 61 catches for 477 yards and two touchdowns. After coach Pat Shurmur took control of the Browns in 2011, Hillis had 161 carries for 587 yards (3.6 average) to go along with 22 catches for 130 yards.
Shurmur declined to discuss Hillis’ turbulent end in Cleveland.
“I’m going to talk about Peyton Hillis, the 2012 version,” Shurmur said. “I’d be happy to answer any questions there. No, I won’t put it into words.”
Shurmur did not want to describe the soap opera.
Last year, Hillis got married in Arkansas on a Tuesday; stood at midfield at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and tried to throw footballs between the uprights during pregame warm-ups, even though he had been ruled out; missed a Halloween party for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland; and was pulled aside by a group of teammates who were fed up with his behavior. Thomas, though, said Hillis wouldn’t listen.
After the season ended, Hillis fired McGuire and re-hired agent Jimmy Sexton. On March 1, ESPN’s Adam Schefter cited unnamed team sources while reporting that Hillis told Browns coaches he was contemplating retirement as recently as the end of last season and even considered joining the CIA, a claim Hillis denied.
“It was kind of one weird thing after another more than anything,” Thomas said. “We have guys getting married during the season, and it’s not a big deal. When you’re injured [Thomas used air quotes when he said injured] and you should be getting treatment, to go do your own thing repeatedly was just disrespectful more than anything to his teammates.”
Thomas said Browns fans fell in love with Hillis for the right reasons, but he changed.
“He was everything people knew about him — hard-working, blue-collar, tough, would do anything for anybody on the team,” Thomas said. “All he cared about was winning, and then all of a sudden the next year all he cared about was trying to get his new contract. He wasn’t real popular around here, the way he went about his business.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.