Xs & Os: McDaniels' Big Mistake

Doug Farrar breaks down Denver's running back who got away (for Brady Quinn)

It's sometimes difficult to explain the value of a player. We have different stats, both traditional and advanced, that tell us certain things, but it's often just as much about what happens to a team in a player's absence that tells us how valuable they really are. Consider the case of Peyton Hillis. The seventh-round pick of the 2008 Denver Broncos, traded to the Browns by Josh McDaniels in March of 2010 for (snicker) Brady Quinn, currently has more rushing yards, more 100-yard rushing games, and more rushing touchdowns, than does the entire Denver Broncos team.

We can talk about the fact that he put up the third-best Total DYAR among all Week 9 running backs in Football Outsiders' metrics, but it's just as easy to say that the team Hillis left greatly misses him, and the team that currently has him wouldn't be the NFL's most dangerous sub-500 team – and that's not a pejorative term when you beat the Saints and Patriots in consecutive games to close out that first half.

In the Browns' 34-14 thrashing of the Pats last Sunday, Hillis didn't just score two touchdowns and 184 yards on 29 carries; he also had just one negative play. One. As in, of the 29 times he ran the ball, he didn't get back to the line of scrimmage or create yardage just once. That's expected of a 6-foot-1, 240-pound cement mixer, but you didn't see Jamal Lewis doing this kind of stuff. Hillis' secret weapon is an agility that completely belies his appearance and renders the Larry Csonka and Mike Alstott comparisons meaningless. Hillis can bull through any front line, but he's a different breed of cat, and his 35-yard touchdown run with 2:47 left in the game displayed his burst after handoff as well as anything he's done this year.

One of the best parts of the Hillis-Browns marriage is the positive situations offensive coordinator Brian Daboll puts him in. This was a two-tight end formation with both tight ends stacked right, and an offset-I right with fullback Lawrence Vickers, who is on a short list of the NFL's best blocking fullbacks. The blocking was superlative – from the two tight ends crunching inside, to the slide protection to the left, to the two key blocks on the play – Vickers on Pats safety Josh Barrett (36) and Eric Steinbach's pull block on safety Brandon Meriwether (31). It was a functional and schematic win before the handoff, and you can see the influence of Mike Holmgren in the pull block.

But this play doesn't work without Hillis' speed to the edge. He got around Barrett and hit open space with fury, outrunning Sanders and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to the end zone. Mayo tried to reach for Hillis near the score, but Hillis just gave the standout defender a quick stiff-arm, and it was all over. You will go entire games without seeing backs and offenses working together with such efficiency, but you may not see a Browns series for the rest of the season in which the synergy between the Browns and Hillis isn't absolutely evident. Hillis still has a chip on his shoulder over that Denver divorce, but you can't imagine that he'd change the current plot for anything.

"You know, when I left Denver last year, it kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth," Hillis recently told Scott Van Pelt of ESPN Radio. "I felt like I was a better player than what I was playing at out there last year. And I prayed every night that I would get a new opportunity and shot somewhere else. The Lord gave me that here in Cleveland, and I felt like I had a responsibility to take full advantage of it. I'm glad I'm doing everything in my power to help this team and help this city win. From here on out, I ain't looking back."

One would have to be a fool, or Josh McDaniels, to disagree.


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