BEREA - In 2011 ex-Browns running back Peyton Hillis went from being the cover boy of the Madden NFL 12 video game to the bad boy in the Browns' locker room.
Along the way Hillis, now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, tugged at and pulled down the team. From not playing in a week three game against the Miami Dolphins because of strep throat, to difficult contract negotiations, to a lingering hamstring injury, Hillis was a divisive force behind the scenes.
There were plenty of reasons why the Browns were a dismal 4-12 in coach Pat Shurmur's first year on the job, but it's hard to argue that distractions surrounding Hillis didn't top the list.
"I don't know if anybody picked sides because I don't know if anybody would have been on Peyton's side," five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. "The way he handled it wasn't the best. I think he knows it now. It affected everyone.
"It's really nice that it's behind us and we're moving forward here because I think the guys we have right now are going to be stellar."
Hillis was the darling of fans and a must interview after every game in 2010, his first season with the Browns after a trade that sent him and a sixth-round draft choice from Denver to Cleveland in exchange for quarterback Brady Quinn. In 16 games (14 starts) Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on 270 carries. He added 477 yards and two touchdowns on 61 receptions, along with the honor of prevailing in fan voting to have his image on the cover of the popular Madden game.
The fact that Hillis was the first white running back to rush for at least 1,000 yards since Craig James did it with New England in 1985 certainly didn't slip by the attention of marketing types locally and nationally. All that was missing from his meteoric rise to stardom was a lucrative, long-term contract.
Hillis' agent at the time, Kennard McGuire, needed a willing partner in the Browns, but that never materialized. Although team president Mike Holmgren mentioned more than once his desire to get a deal done, the team seemed concerned about earmarking excessive money to Hillis, whose power running style is conducive to injuries.
With Montario Hardesty returning from a serious knee injury, Shurmur wanted to see what he had in the second-round pick in the 2010 draft. Hillis, nonetheless, opened the season as the featured back, rushing for 57 yards in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and having what would be one of his best performances of the season the following week - 94 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in a 27-19 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The drama started the next week when Hillis pulled himself from the lineup prior to a home game against the Miami Dolphins. Strep throat was the official reason, but the media's attention was piqued when it was learned that Hillis' decision was influenced by McGuire.
Hillis played a week later in a home loss to the Tennessee Titans, rushing 10 times for 46 yards. Two weeks later following a bye, Hillis pulled his left hamstring on his first carry in a road game against the Oakland Raiders. The injury wasn't announced in the press box until late in the third quarter. Because he was shown on television standing on the sideline, there was speculation that he was being benched.
Hillis returned later and finished with six carries for 14 yards. There was confusion regarding whether he was sent in by coaches or entered without permission.
The hamstring injury sidelined Hillis the next five games, ending any hopes he had of landing a new contract. During the time his attitude seemed distant and selfish.
With Hardesty again dealing with injury problems, Shurmur began playing Chris Ogbonnaya, who finished second in rushing yards to Hillis with 334. Hillis played in the final six games and ended the season with 587 yards on 161 carries, including a 112-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Baltimore Ravens.
The injuries to Hillis and Hardesty, along with the soap opera created by Hillis, sabotaged the offense. It was damaged further by quarterback Colt McCoy's inability to sustain drives and produce points.
"No running backs," Thomas said when reminded that the offense had virtually no ground game.
That changed in the offseason when the Browns selected Alabama star Trent Richardson with the third overall pick in the draft. Hardesty is healthier than at any time since he's been with the team, and 2011 free-agent arrival Brandon Jackson is back after missing the entire season with a toe injury. Hillis signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Chiefs in March.
"Just to have a running back is awesome," Thomas said. "What we went through last year is tough on any O-lineman. The way we had guys go down to injuries and personal issues were terrible. To be able to have Trent in there, who is as solid as they come as a running back, and to have Montario and Brandon back healthy and a couple of other guys behind that can play, it's going to be really exciting."