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Peyton Hillis Is Still the Physical Embodiment of the Post-1999 Browns

Nothing represents Cleveland football more than a moment of relevance followed by swift, immediate decline

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Cleveland sports history is littered with would-be superstars who, for one reason or another, never panned out. The second incarnation of the Browns — the losingest NFL franchise since 1999 — has been a particular hotbed for unrealized potential (Josh Gordon), misplaced hype (Derek Anderson), and catastrophic draft busts (Johnny Manziel). Oh, and retrospectively hilarious video game covers:

EA
EA

Millennia from now, when aliens make it to Earth and survey humanity’s remains, they’ll look upon the cover of Madden 12 and wonder: How the hell did this happen? The answer, of course, is that Peyton Hillis’s cover materialized democratically: with a 32-player bracket with winners determined by online voting, the first in Madden history. Although he entered the tournament as a 10-seed, Hillis easily defeated his first-round opponent, AFC North rival Ray Rice, by a 62–38 percent margin. He then upset Matt Ryan and Jamaal Charles to set up a much-anticipated final four showdown with Aaron Rodgers. This shouldn’t have been close: Rodgers was the reigning Super Bowl MVP, while Hillis was merely an 1,177-yard rusher on a 5–11 team. Any objective evaluation of the matchup would have projected a Rodgers landslide. And it was a landslide — with Hillis earning 61 percent of the 548,000-plus votes to advance to the championship.

At this point, it became clear that Hillis was destined for victory. The final round ended in another blowout, with Hillis garnering an eye-popping 65.6 percent of the vote to knock off Michael Vick:

If Browns fans couldn’t have a winning football team, they could at least mobilize to put a glorified journeyman on the cover of Madden. Facebook groups and fan sites got behind the Hillis campaign (to say nothing of rumors of classic internet voting manipulation), resulting in perhaps the strangest sports video game cover of all time.

Hillis wasn’t even some kind of longtime Cleveland sports legend — he’d just joined the Browns the year prior, via a trade that sent mega-bust Brady Quinn to the Broncos. Hillis had shown flashes of talent as a fullback in Denver, and to Browns coach Eric Mangini, the 2008 seventh-rounder from Arkansas was no mere throw-in: “Peyton was mandatory in that trade,” Mangini says. In fact, Hillis had caught Mangini’s eye back in 2008, when Mangini was coaching the Jets. “We played Denver two years before in New York, and they had a bunch of guys hurt. Peyton got a chance to start, and he killed us,” he remembers. Although Hillis rushed for 129 yards in a 34–17 Broncos win, his warm-up reps left an even bigger impression on Mangini. “I was watching him leading up to that game, and his hands were incredible. He made some ridiculous catches … That’s what made me want him.”

In 2010, injuries to running backs Montario Hardesty and Jerome Harrison catapulted Hillis to Cleveland’s starting lineup in Week 3, and he made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 144 yards and catching seven passes in a 24–17 loss to the Ravens. To fantasy owners, Hillis was like manna from the waiver-wire gods, and he continued to deliver week after week.

He ended the 2010 season as the second-highest-scoring running back in fantasy football, despite an inauspicious preseason average draft position of 191.66. But it wasn’t just Hillis’s productivity that endeared him to Browns fans: It was his bruising, downhill running style, which seemed straight out of the 1950s, when running back was the most glamorous position in football and the Browns were a bona fide dynasty. Hillis was a gridiron superhero, plowing through and hurdling defenders in equal measure — the Platonic ideal of Cleveland football. But in typical Browns fashion, as soon as he hit a point of national relevance, everything fell apart.

It’s tempting to speculate that Hillis was ill-prepared for the spotlight, after being overshadowed by Darren McFadden and Felix Jones during his time at Arkansas and spending the majority of his first two NFL seasons on the bench. Mangini’s January 2011 firing and the subsequent NFL lockout couldn’t have helped, either, and when the 2011 season started, Hillis wasn’t shy about his desire for a new contract, which cast a shadow over the rest of the year. When Hillis missed a game due to illness on the advice of his third agent in a year, igniting the Great Strep Throat Controversy of 2011, a divorce from the Browns seemed inevitable. After a bizarre Adam Schefter report about Hillis’s apparent interest in joining the CIA, it finally became official: Hillis was leaving Cleveland. He inked a one-year deal with Kansas City in March 2012, ending one of the oddest, rockiest NFL marriages in recent memory. He went on to rush for just 309 yards with the Chiefs, played sporadically for the Giants in 2013 and 2014, and has been out of football ever since.

Mangini remains befuddled by Hillis’s downfall. “When things went south with him after I left, it didn’t make any sense,” he says. “We never had anything but a positive experience with him. He was a great teammate, very coachable, and never had any disciplinary problems.” But if that was the case in 2010, then 2011 was a different story: Browns stalwart Joe Thomas accused him of “refusing to play” and prioritizing his contract over “helping his team win,” and Hillis even conceded that he “wasn’t thinking rationally.” Might the infamous Madden curse have been partly to blame? Either way, it certainly adds to the mythos surrounding Hillis, whose ill-fated dalliance with NFL superstardom epitomizes the good, bad, and mostly ugly of the post-1999 Browns.

So many things about 2011 seem absurd in hindsight: LeBron James had yet to win an NBA championship; LMFAO’s execrable “Party Rock Anthem” spent a whopping six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100; and Snooki, JWoww, and The Situation were the biggest stars on TV. Life was much simpler (albeit dumber) back then. Five years is a long time, as evidenced by the fact that Peyton freaking Hillis graced the cover of the NFL’s flagship video game.