Peyton Hillis said many of the right things Thursday when he spoke to the media.
He gave his best humble speech, talked of learning, talked of not wanting to let anyone down, talked of not being able to describe things that happen behind the scenes.
Perhaps the most important thing he said, though, was that he was able to make it through Thursdays practice and he was pointing toward playing against Houston on Sunday.
The NFL is an unforgiving world. If a guy is not out for an extended time and if a guy is able to do things like throw a football across the field before a game, then hes expected to try to play. Teammates want their main guys out there. Its a part of the code; the stars are stars because they play, but leaders cant lead if they dont produce.
There was the time that former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau was asked during Ryan Leafs rookie season how a rookie earned respect, and he said: By feeding the families of the guys playing on his team. There was the time a former Brown was talking about a teammate and he said: Hes a jerk, but hes there on Sunday. Translation: Show up for the team on Sunday and a lot is forgotten.
Alex Mack demonstrated that this season when he played with appendicitis. Hindsight might say that might not have been the best decision, but he was out there for his teammates.
Peyton Hillis hasnt been. There may be reasons. And guys accept them -- to a point. But when they hear that a guy felt well enough to go to the stadium but left on the advice of his agent that raises eyebrows. Then when a guy stands up in front of his teammates at a team meeting prior to a game in Oakland and promises hes going to play for them the next day and then lasts 15 or so plays its noticed.
Its not that they dont believe a guy is hurting. They do. They just know hes not out there with them.
Then, when a guy misses a charity event for kids, it just doesnt sit well. The same night Hillis missed his appearance at the Boys and Girls Club in Cleveland, Joe Haden missed an appearance. The difference: Haden called ahead and sent memorabilia to sell for the benefit of the group. Hillis, and his management team, didnt bother to answer a call or a text.
When all this is going on within the context of a contract discussion, the door is open for more questions. Its safe to say there is a strong feeling throughout the league that Hillis is playing for a contract this season, and people believe -- true or not -- that he is not willing to stretch himself because he wants to protect that contract. Hillis has contributed to the impression.
(Oddly, guys usually do this after they sign a big deal. Thats when coast mode sometimes kicks in. Doing it before the contract is signed? Not wise.)
So now Hillis faces the situation where he has to get back on the field to earn that contract. At this point, no team is going go give big money to a guy who had one good year, then spent part of the next on the bench. Fair or not, thats how it goes. Running backs are readily available.
If reports (that first came from Tony Zarrella of WOIO-Channel 19) are true that the Browns offered Hillis 16.5 million for three years, then he turned 5.5 million per year, with 3 million guaranteed. Thats not big-time running back money, but thats a lot of money for a guy who had one good season, who fumbles a lot, and whose running style puts him at risk. Kevin Johnson had some good seasons for the Browns and wanted big money. When he didnt get it, he sought a trade and a day later took the Browns offer. Hillis may wind up with a longer and better career, but at this point the situations arent that dissimilar.
None of this goes unnoticed in a locker room. But theres one way to overcome it: Produce (See Chad Johnson, Cincinnati). As Jimmy Johnson once said, the more a guy produces the more he gets away with. A backup who gets arrested gets cut, Johnson said. What if Dan Marino fell asleep in a meeting, he was asked. Johnson bent over, cupped his hand around his mouth and whispered: Please wake up.
I feel like the guys are looking up to me and need me to produce for the team, Hillis said. I think they expect a lot out of me, even more than I expect for myself. That makes me work harder for them.
Given the events of the season, that kind of statement might cause some rolled eyes.
Hillis a year ago came across as an aw-shucks, jeans-and-boots kind of country guy. Now he comes across as a guy trying to cash in after one big year. His reputation has taken a beating, perhaps a bit unfairly. But where theres smoke theres fire, and a guy who talks about responsibility who simply doesnt show up for an event for kids is stoking a fire..
Hillis talked like he understood. Whether he gets it is another matter.
You do care what people think, especially people that you care about and people that care about you, he said.
At this point the best thing Hillis can do is get back on the field and start producing. Hes got nine games left to prove to his teammates he is with them, nine games left to prove to his management hes worth more than theyre offering, and nine games left to prove he understands what truly matters -- and thats going out and helping his team win.
He said hes trying to be the best player I can be, the best teammate
Which sounds good. Going out and actually doing it would be better.