If they're going to throw a farewell party for Josh McDaniels, I suggest they do it in Cleveland. Nobody should be more grateful for what McDaniels accomplished in Denver than the Cleveland Browns -- and if you're not sure why then you haven't been following Peyton Hillis.
Hillis is not just the best back and best player on the Browns. He's one of the best backs and one of the best players in the NFL.
|The hard-running Hillis has quickly become a huge favorite of Cleveland fans. (US Presswire)|
"He's beloved," said Browns' general manager Tom Heckert. "He's the kind of guy the city should embrace. Obviously, we're glad we have him."
And that's where McDaniels comes in. Because the Cleveland Browns wouldn't have Peyton Hillis if the former Denver coach wasn't so willing to get rid of him. According to league sources, McDaniels had been interested in trading Hillis for nearly a year before he agreed to a deal with Cleveland that now seems so lopsided you wonder if McDaniels is descended from Harry Frazee.
I mean, Peyton Hillis and two draft picks for ...
What makes the deal so compelling is that Cleveland had decided it was finished with Quinn. In fact, it shopped him for weeks with no one interested and was this close to waiving the guy until McDaniels came to the rescue. He expressed interest in Quinn before, so the Browns figured they'd check with him again before cutting Quinn loose.
They discovered that not only was McDaniels still intrigued by Quinn but was willing to offer the Browns the running back they coveted. That was Hillis, who'd come to coach Eric Mangini's attention when Hillis played against Mangini's New York Jets in 2008 and ran for a then-career-high 129 yards and a touchdown.
Mangini liked everything about the guy and made a mental note then to track him if he ever became available. But he wasn't alone. When Heckert was the GM in Philadelphia, he was on to Hillis, too, figuring he'd be a perfect fit for the Eagles.
Of course, nothing ever happened until the Browns put Quinn on the market, and then it happened in a hurry. Once Denver was interested, it was easy for Mangini and Heckert to zero in on a target, with both agreeing that Hillis could improve the Browns with his running, his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his toughness.
But they didn't stop there. Instead, they somehow convinced Denver to throw in two draft picks -- a sixth-rounder in 2010 and an undetermined 2011 choice that probably becomes another sixth -- to sweeten a deal that, frankly, helped make both clubs what they are today.
In Quinn, McDaniels thought he was getting a future starter. Instead, he's the team's third-stringer and hasn't played a down this season. In Hillis, the Browns knew what they were getting, and what you see today is the product of a club that did its homework.
"He's changed things here," said Mangini. "When he's rolling, and we're rolling it's a beautiful thing."
Mangini is right. Hillis has changed things. The Browns may not be the most entertaining or most talented club on the planet, but they're tough, effective and a difficult out. In short, they're a reflection of their running back. They drew the league's toughest schedule, yet never backed down -- playing opponents so hard and close that six of their games, including the last three, each were decided by four or fewer points.
They blew out defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans. They buried New England. They took the Jets to overtime. They could have beaten Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Baltimore and Kansas City. They should've beaten Jacksonville. Cleveland rocks, and nobody is rocking the Browns ... and their fans ... like Peyton Hillis. He leads the team in rushing, leads the team in catches, has nearly twice as many touchdowns (13) as the Browns' leading scorer a year ago (7) and has more scores than any running back in the NFL outside of Houston's Arian Foster (15).
But that's just the beginning, people. He's the only Browns' back outside of Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly to rush for 11 TDs in one year -- and the first since Kelly did it in 1968. He has a touchdown in all but two games. He's tied for the league lead in third-and-one conversions with a perfect 9-for-9. He ranks second among running backs in receptions with 53. He's fourth in first downs and fifth in total yardage, and his 1,398 yards in offense comprise 38.1 percent of the Browns' output.
"He has a ton of touchdowns," said Mangini, "and some of them have been blocked. But there have been others where he just willed his way into the end zone. He's added toughness around here that's contagious. Guys 'ooh' and 'ah' when they watch some of those plays, and it sets a tempo."
Hillis is relentless, running over and through anyone who gets in his way, and he's so reliable, so dependable, so, well, indispensable, that when the Browns were trying to close out New England early last month they called on Hillis. Ahead by 13 points with just over six minutes to go, Cleveland ran him every play of its game-clinching drive. Hillis responded by carrying six times for 60 yards, punctuating the series with a 35-yard TD.
"He's the real deal," said Heckert.
Too bad McDaniels didn't get the memo. Losing Peyton Hillis didn't cost him his job, but it helped to build the case against him. I can't imagine where the Broncos would be with Peyton Hillis, but I do know where Cleveland would be without him -- and here's to Eric Mangini and Tom Heckert for making sure that didn't happen.