Monday, November 29, 2010

About damn time

It's official. Peyton Hillis has become someone other than "that guy who came to the Cleveland Browns from Denver in the trade for Brady Quinn."

Why is it official? Because the Cleveland running back has been discovered by ESPN. And when ESPN recognizes you and praises your talents, you have arrived. Or so they believe.

During his NFL Prime Time telecast Monday, host Trey Wingo referred to Hillis as "America's running back." Not certain what that means exactly, but the fact he was placed on such a high pedestal is bold recognition of his talent. And now the nation knows who Peyton Hillis is.

Of course, it took a three-touchdown afternoon against the Carolina Panthers Sunday to achieve that recognition. But what the heck. No one's complaining.

There are some strange and wonderful stories that permeate the National Football League landscape throughout the season, but this one has to be right up there with the best.

When training camp for the 2010 the season began for the Browns, Hillis was just another plug-ugly running back who found himself listed semi-anonymously among the team's running backs roster behind Jerome Harrison, rookie Montario Hardesty and James Davis. He was the fifth wheel on a four-wheel machine.

Then Hardesty went down with a knee injury, Harrison rubbed the coaching staff the wrong way and was benched despite a strong finish last season and just like that, Hillis was the starting running back. By game three, he became the regular by default. He was the only one left. And when Harrison was dealt to Philadelphia, the job officially became Hillis'.

No one knew exactly what to expect. Not even the coaching staff, which kept him on the bench at the start of the second game of the season against Kansas City.

He was just this big, strong kid from Arkansas with bulging biceps and supposedly not much else. He carried the ball just 81 times for 397 yards in his first two seasons with the Broncos. (Harrison had that much yardage in three games for the Browns late last season.) And when Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan in 2009, Hillis became a non-factor with just 13 carries for 54 yards.

So when Cleveland General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. shopped Quinn around the NFL and found a buyer in Denver on March 14, securing Hillis and two low-round futures draft picks in exchange, it was considered in some quarters as nothing more than just another innocuous deal.

Today, it's considered the steal of the year. And it's not even close.

Hillis has become the darling of the Cleveland sports community with his blue-collar running style. He epitomizes Cleveland with his hard-driving, never-quit work ethic. Browns fans adore his bull-like, almost crushing style of running the football.

It's almost as if he's looking for people to run over. When he scored his third touchdown Sunday against the Panthers, he ran over Charles Godfrey as though the Carolina safety was just a tiny impediment between him and the goal line. A flick of the left forearm and Godfrey, poised to make the solo tackle, was eating turf.

It was the kind of power running the Browns haven't had arguably since the great Jim Brown. Mild arguments can be made for Mike Pruitt, Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, but Hillis maximizes his talent more and has more raw power.

His efforts have sent members of the media scurrying for the record book. Through game 11, Hillis has scored 13 touchdowns, 11 on the ground. The only game in which he failed to score at least once was the Pittsburgh loss in week 6. If he keeps up this pace, he has a chance to break at least one club record.

The Browns' record for total TDs in a season is 21 (in 14 games), held by Brown in 1965, his final season. He scored a record 17 on the ground twice, 1958 in 12 games and 1965.

However, Hillis doesn't appear to be the kind of player who cares much about personal achievements. The only statistic that matters to him is the one under the column marked W. If the Browns had lost to the Panthers Sunday, his virtuoso achievements would have been noteworthy and not much else.

It was apparent as early game three in Baltimore that Hillis was someone special. Even though the Browns lost to the Ravens, he ran for 144 yards against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. It was the first of his four 100-yard games.

His one vice, if you can call it that considering how much he's meant to the Cleveland offense this season, is an occasional inability to hang on to the ball. He has fumbled five times, losing four. All five have been the result of second and third efforts.

That's the kind of runner he is, always looking to pound out more yards. He clearly reminds avid NFL fans of Mike Alstott, the burly running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2006. They are built alike -- Alstott at 6-1, 248 pounds and Hillis at 6-1, 240 pounds.

Their styles are remarkably similar, but Alstott never put up numbers like Hillis has this season. Alstott's best season was a 949-yard effort in 1999 and he never scored more than 11 TDs in a season. Hillis already has 905 yards with five games left.

There are some who say Hillis eventually will pay dearly for all the contact he absorbs throughout the game. But then they don't take into account the amount of punishment he dishes out at the same time.

Hillis' achievements this season are certain to gain recognition around the league when it comes time for balloting for the Pro Bowl. It would not be surprising if he is well on his way to becoming the first Cleveland running back in the Pro Bowl since Eric Metcalf in 1995.

And if there's a more popular athlete in Cleveland right now, I don't know who it would be. No one on the Indians and Cavaliers comes close to challenging Hillis' popularity now that You Know Who is no longer on the scene.

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