BEREA, Ohio – The Cleveland Browns' team charter had taxied onto the Hopkins International Airport runway last Friday when a flight attendant pulled a small piece of paper out of a white paper bag and made an announcement: "And the winner is … Number 40."
"Congratulations, Peyton," a Browns veteran yelled from the back of the plane as Hillis strode forward to collect his winnings. "You finally got paid!"
The comment, and a slew of similarly sarcastic jeers from other Cleveland players, drew laughs from aisle to aisle. However, as Hillis counted his bag of petty cash and the Browns took off for San Francisco, where two days later they would lose to the 49ers to drop to 3-4, strains of distrust and dysfunction were swirling through the pressurized air.
By Wednesday, a group of about eight Browns veterans had summoned Hillis into a meeting room for an intervention-style, air-clearing session designed to restore his focus. After a breakout season in 2010 that vaulted him to national prominence, including a spot on the "Madden NFL '12" cover, the 25-year-old back's consuming desire for a new contract has become a locker room distraction that numerous teammates regard as an impediment to cohesion and collective success.
"I've never seen anything like it," says one Browns veteran. "Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team – but now he's like a different guy. It's like he's in a funk that he can't get out of, and it's killing us, because we really need him. And we've told him that. But we're at the point where we just don't know what to do."
During an interview session with reporters in the locker room of the Browns' training facility Thursday, Hillis conceded that his dissatisfaction with his contract and the accompanying controversies – including his decision to miss a late-September game against the Miami Dolphins while suffering from strep throat – have made it difficult to get his "mind right."
"It's been a humbling experience," Hillis said Thursday after participating in a practice, despite a strained left hamstring that has caused him to miss the Browns' last two games. He could miss Sunday's game against the Houston Texans after reportedly aggravating his hamstring injury at practice Friday.
"It's been a whirlwind coming from where I was to where I'm at now. I'm trying to grasp the whole situation and trying to deal with it. It's still a learning process and I'm trying to do the best I can."
Hillis insisted that "there's never been a problem" with his intra-locker room relationships, but numerous Browns players indicated otherwise. While sympathetic to Hillis' desire for a new deal – he's in the final year of his rookie contract and will make $600,000 in 2011 – they believe he has allowed his frustrations surrounding the lack of progress on that front to detract from his focus.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: WR Kevin Walter says Texans have a game plan for the Browns]
Most conspicuously, Hillis sat out the Sept. 25 victory over the Dolphins after a week-long bout with strep throat, reporting to Cleveland Stadium hours before the game, informing team officials he felt too sick to play and heading home prior to the arrival of most of his teammates. He later said he decided not to play on the advice of his agent, Kennard McGuire, adding to the suspicions of teammates, Browns officials and fans that his contract situation affected his availability.
More recently, Hillis annoyed teammates after joining third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis(notes) in a conspicuous competition to throw footballs off the crossbar of the Candlestick Park goalposts about 90 minutes before Sunday's 20-10 defeat to the Niners. Hillis, who had aggravated the hamstring strain in a practice a few days earlier, supposedly was a game-time decision; the spectacle occurred while other Browns players were stretching and engaging in warm-ups; it was captured by CBS TV cameras and discussed on the broadcast.
"It was a bad look," one veteran said, "and it did not sit well with any of us."
On Monday, Hillis was criticized by former Browns center LeCharles Bentley(notes) after missing a scheduled appearance at a Halloween party for the Cleveland Boys and Girls Club. Hillis has since apologized, citing a "miscommunication" with his management.
His miserable week continued when, on Wednesday morning, Hillis was summoned to a meeting room where, to his surprise, he encountered a group of veterans who expressed their concerns about his recent actions and demeanor.
"A few guys tried to talk to him, to make him understand the best way to go about things is to put your head down and do the best you possibly can," said All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas(notes), the team's best and highest-paid player. "Because if the Browns aren't going to pay you, some team will break the bank – and either way you need to play hard."
[Related: Peyton Hillis ripped for what he didn't do]
Added linebacker Scott Fujita(notes): "The fact that everyone has to get asked about [Hillis' situation] by the local beat writers every day, it's started to create a distraction, and it's a shame that it has to be that way. I'm never gonna be in a position to question a player's toughness. I just want him to be healthy and in the right frame of mind to help the team. More than anything else, that's what our conversation with him was about."
The tone of the meeting was mostly positive, with the veterans explaining to Hillis that some of his actions were being perceived negatively (they specifically cited the football-throwing incident before the Niners game) and that they needed his full commitment to help inject life into a struggling offense. After all, they have empathy for Hillis' financially driven frustrations, a phenomenon that has not been uncommon in Cleveland's locker room in recent years.
Browns players understand that running backs are particularly driven to maximize their earning potential because of the wear-and-tear endemic to the position, a position recently enunciated by Chicago Bears halfback Matt Forte(notes), who has been frustrated by his inability to secure a new, lucrative deal.
Some Browns players believe current management hasn't been overly supportive of Hillis at a time when the player seems to be mentally fragile and that everyone from team president Mike Holmgren to rookie coach Pat Shurmur could have handled the situation better. Shurmur told reporters it was his "understanding" that Hillis was sick before the Dolphins game, rather than unequivocally defending the player's decision to sit out. There is also a sense that the organization's three powerbrokers on the football side – Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and Shurmur – may not be in lockstep on their handling of the situation or in the team's direction in general.
Last month Holmgren, who coached the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks to a combined three Super Bowls, told reporters that negotiations between the team and Hillis were "quiet now" and that the two sides had "agreed to let Peyton play, let the dust settle and see what happens." Holmgren declined an interview request this week, and McGuire – Hillis' third agent since the end of the 2010 season – was unavailable Thursday because of a personal matter.
On the other hand, as one veteran player said, "The organization is not going to reward a guy they think is moping or acting out or going about it the wrong way, just out of principle, and because of the message it sends to younger guys. And I totally understand that."
Heckert conceded on Thursday that "the guys we did sign [to big contracts], those are the guys we feel are ultimate team guys who want to be here."
As to Hillis' situation, Heckert said, "We've had numerous conversations. We were so far apart that [talks broke off]. It's not like it's a dead deal, but let's see how he plays the rest of the season and then reassess. There's a ton of time."
A seventh-round draft pick out of Arkansas, where he was in the same backfield as Oakland Raiders star Darren McFadden(notes), Hillis gained 397 yards in two seasons for the Broncos before being shipped to Cleveland with a pair of draft picks for quarterback Brady Quinn(notes). The deal looked like a huge steal for the Browns in 2010 when Hillis emerged as a punishing lead back, running for 1,177 yards on 270 carries and scoring 11 of his 13 touchdowns on the ground.
This year, Hillis has run 60 times for 211 yards and two scores, and his per-carry average is down from 4.4 to 3.5 yards. His backup, Montario Hardesty(notes), went down with a torn calf muscle against the 49ers, leaving the team with a pair of inexperienced alternatives if Hillis can't play Sunday against the Texans in Houston Cleveland ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (87.6).
"It's tough not having him out here for whatever reason it is," Thomas said of Hillis. "He can definitely make a difference, cause he's a difference-maker. I really think safeties and linebackers, when they have to play against a healthy Peyton, they're scared. He hurt two guys on one play last year against the Bengals; it was crazy. Whatever's going on, hopefully they can get it worked out, because we need him."
Pro Bowl center Alex Mack(notes) expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "He's really important. He's a strong, hard runner, so he'll turn a lousy, one-yard run into a four-yard gain, or a four-yard run into an eight-yard gain. Then Coach gets more comfortable calling runs, and down-and-distance situations improve. He runs so hard that he makes you look good as a lineman, no matter what, and you start blocking better."
Mack inadvertently made Hillis look bad in early October when, a week after Hillis skipped the Dolphins game with strep throat, the lineman toughed out a home defeat to the Titans with a stomach ailment that was diagnosed the following day as appendicitis. Mack had surgery during the team's bye week and returned 13 days later to play in a 24-17 defeat to the Raiders in Oakland.
"I would defend [Hillis'] decision not to play," Mack insisted. "You love the game of football until you prove otherwise. People don't play in the Senior Bowl all the time, because you don't want to look bad and hurt your draft position. So if you're not healthy and in a contract year – and you lost a lot of weight, couldn't eat and felt terrible – maybe it's the best decision for yourself and your team."
Wide receiver and special teams ace Joshua Cribbs(notes), who endured his own contract-related drama before finally landing a new deal in January of 2010 shortly after Holmgren's arrival, believes Hillis' smartest decision at this point is to get over his frustration and play at the highest level possible.
"I gave him the same advice [Hall of Fame running back and Browns legend] Jim Brown gave me: 'Just play, and you'll get what you deserve,' " Cribbs said Thursday. "Our advice to him is to do what he does best. Just play. He's been forthcoming, letting guys know what's going on. He already proved himself [last year]. I feel for him. [Now] he has a chip on his shoulder, so he's more apt to prove himself."
Teammates say that a productive, focused performance against the Texans would go a long way toward Hillis winning back support in the locker room. In the meantime, there is rampant skepticism about his behavior and mindset.
Referring to Hillis' collection of the Hot 20 bounty on last Friday's flight, one veteran player said, "Once that happened, I stopped believing in karma for good."
Asked about Hillis' stroke of luck in the locker room Thursday, Thomas gave a wan smile and shook his head.
"Hopefully," Thomas said, "he spent it wisely."
Whether Hillis can recover his locker room capital remains to be seen.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
A very bitter and embarrassed Mike Shanahan will come up with a wicked game plan against the 49ers – and his Redskins will pull out an upset. … Philip Rivers(notes) and the Chargers will bounce back from Monday night's bummer by shocking the Packers at Qualcomm. … Terrell Suggs(notes) and the other 52 Ravens will bring the requisite aggression to the apocalypse, but the revived Steelers will pull out the victory at Heinz Field Sunday night.
And remember, you can find all of my picks here – and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com. My travel schedule kept me from gloating about my Locks of the Week lead, but Eddie George and Jason Cole know the score.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
San Diego, where I'll either be heralded as the sage who called the improbable upset that sparked the Chargers' annual November charge or find Aaron Rodgers(notes) and tell him "I was wr----," Fonzie style.
LIES, LIES, LIES
3. Following a conversation with Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, for whom he is helping to lead fundraising efforts in California, Chargers owner Dean Spanos threatened to "secede from the AFC West" if the Raiders win the division this year.
FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK
The Lindsay Gottlieb era began Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, with the Golden Bears rolling to a 99-58 exhibition victory over Vanguard, as 11 players scored and freshman point guard Brittany Boyd (18 points, nine rebounds, five assists, five steals, two blocks in 20 minutes) announced her presence in a major way. But that didn't stop the multitasking women's hoops coach from soliciting some fantasy advice earlier that morning, as she attempts to move third-place Bringin' It Back (5-3) further up the standings. With Adrian Peterson and the Bengals' defense and special teams combining to score more than half of her 97 points, Gottlieb's team easily defeated The Romo Empire. Peterson, however, has a bye heading into this week's matchup with first place Thank God No Lockout (Ray Rice(notes), LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Jeremy Maclin(notes), Brandon Marshall(notes), Antonio Gates(notes)), leaving the running back deficient Gottlieb with few appealing options. She put in a waiver claim for DeAngelo Williams(notes) but, for now, is starting Jackie Battle(notes) and Shonn Greene(notes); I also advised her to pick up Jay Feely(notes) (Ryan Longwell(notes) has a bye) and to start Reggie Wayne(notes), Plaxico Burress(notes) and Julio Jones(notes) over Santonio Holmes(notes). Gottlieb's most dependable player, Jimmy Graham(notes), is coming off his first lousy week of the season. "I need him to bounce back in a big way," she said. "It'll be tough without AD" – note Gottlieb's correct use of Peterson's nickname, short for All Day rather than the lazy "AP" – "but on a positive note, I don't have to start John Beck(notes) or Jabar Gaffney(notes)."
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (4-4) got bloodied for the second consecutive week, this time by Bangas, and now my buddy Malibu has his least-favorite matchup of the regular season: He's playing 5-3 Man Up Schaub U …, the team owned by his son, A-Man. So Malibu probably doesn't even want to win, but if DeSean Jackson(notes) and Philip Rivers can snap out of their season-long funks – and if the injured Darren McFadden is unable to join McCoy in A-Man's lineup – he just might steal a victory. Even better, Malibu has successfully worked his way to the top of the waiver wire, so if and when a second-half fantasy sensation emerges from the ashes, he'll be in position to pounce. In the meantime, I advised him to make a free-agent claim on the Falcons' defense to replace his beloved Chargers, who'll be facing Aaron Rodgers.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
The Bears' 16th-ranked women's field hockey team rolled to a 5-2 victory over Radford in the quarterfinals of the NorPac Tournament on Thursday night and remained on a probable collision course with No. 6 Stanford for Saturday's championship game. Earlier this week, four of Shellie Onstead's players picked up conference honors, with sophomore forward Andrea Earle getting co-NorPac West Player of the Year recognition, fellow forward Lara Kruggel earning Freshman of the Year acclaim and senior defender Erin Magill and sophomore midfielder Shannon Elmitt joining Earle and Kruggel on the all-conference team.