Few things this season have made me as happy as watching Peyton Hillis become a star. This is made all the more remarkable by the nature of the Browns, a team devoted to defeating opponents as a team focused on a collective identity, scheme, and goal. Still, to credit the Browns’ success solely to the efforts of the coaching staff (who are the architects of the turnaround we’ve seen over the last year) or the collective vision of the locker room (an element of team success about which this team has single-handedly changed my mind) would be a disservice to just how unique Hillis has shown himself to be this year. Hidden at Arkansas behind Felix Jones and Darren McFadden, speedier backs more suited to college offensive schemes, Hillis has used the heightened level of competition in the NFL to establish an identity for himself as an offensive force. Whereas college is a more speed-centric game, the increased speed (and, indeed, general athleticism) of fellow NFL players actually serves to bring out the unique elements of Hilis’s game. In a league filled with shooter runningbacks, Hillis’s style is something of an aged scotch, smoothing brute force with complex moves and unexpected ability to create an identity of attack that is satisfying even as it lacks the jarring nature of similarly remarkable players.
It’s the dichotomy, really. Hillis is a power back by nature. The closest comparison I can think of is Brandon Jacobs’s 2007 season, in which he decreed his runs as predestination. Hillis’s size allows him to fit this mold nicely. Hillis, however, substitutes a degree of craftiness for Jacobs’s head of steam determination. Certainly, when Hillis is met at the point of attack by a defender, he applies explosive power in the direction of the initial path. The difference is that when that force is met by well positioned defense, Hillis has already begun a sort of second move designed to capitalize on the conflict at the initial contact. A spin, or a redirection of course frequently leaves the most well positioned defender engaged in a battle that no longer exists. That’s the real difference, now that I think about it; trying to defend against Hillis isn’t Armageddon so much as it is guerilla warfare, a massive front consisting of too many battles to adequately measure and confront.
None of this takes Hillis’s receiving skills into account, which is what keeps him from becoming a clone of the young Thomas Jones, a scary one-dimensional attack. Hillis has deceptively good hands, and his size masks an ability to disappear into the flats, building a head of steam that makes him difficult to stop after the catch. In this way, he’s better than his predecessor, Jerome Harrison, who teams recognized almost solely as a passing threat; with Hillis, the need to prepare for him as a power back opens the field in a way that Harrison never could.
The resulting combination makes Hillis one of the most unique offensive weapons in the league, and although offensive game plans have helped to highlight his abilities, he is the engine of that planning by virtue of his versatility, the centerpiece that allows the cohesive whole to function. I’m particularly intrigued as to whether or not his style, power giving rise to agility (as opposed to the reverse), has a future in the league. Certainly, in a league that is chiefly focused on getting faster, it is one of the more unique ways of looking at the concept, focusing on functional speed rather than speed in a vacuum being forced into the game.