The famed "Madden curse" has felled more than a couple players who have appeared on the cover of the legendary video game -- Michael Vick, Vince Young, Troy Polamalu, even Drew Brees. Rarely has the voodoo impacted an entire team.
But the Browns must be feeling a bit hexed at the moment. "Madden '12" cover boy Peyton Hillis already has missed three games, and parts of two others, with injuries this season. After bursting onto the scene with 1,177 yards rushing and 13 total touchdowns last season, Hillis hit his high point with video game immortality.
It's been all downhill since then: Hillis has been unhappy Cleveland did not offer him a lucrative contract extension, reportedly found himself on the trading block just a couple of weeks ago and has been a non-factor this season. (He also apparently bailed on a Boys and Girls Club Halloween outing for no reason, but that's another issue for another day.)
Hillis returned to practice Thursday, which would have put him in line to play in Week 9. But he appeared to reinjure his hamstring Friday -- if that diagnosis is accurate, Hillis could find himself on the shelf for several more games.
And if all that wasn't proof enough that something is plaguing the Browns, Hillis' replacement, Montario Hardesty, tore his calf muscle Sunday in San Francisco and will miss multiple games.
The Browns now head into Houston for Week 9 with Chris Ogbonnaya and just-signed Thomas Clayton at running back. That duo has a combined 125 yards rushing in the NFL.
The lack of depth may force Cleveland to utilize Josh Cribbs more -- something the offensively-challenged Browns should be doing anyway, truth be told.
Browns head coach Pat Shurmur had this to say:
"We like to think we can still run the football. Whoever's running the ball, whoever's lining up at tailback, will have that opportunity. We've sustained some injuries, and we've had our first, second and third guy get hurt. We just have to keep playing, and I told the team this, too: Once you make the first excuse, it's a slippery slope. There are no excuses."
It's hard to believe the Browns will get much out of Clayton, in his third year out of Kansas State; or Ogbonnaya, a second-year back out of Texas. Cribbs has just one carry this year, but he rushed for 381 yards with a 6.9 yards-per-carry average back in 2009 and definitely remains one of Cleveland's biggest threats.
The Hillis situation, meanwhile, has devolved into a pretty big debacle for the Browns. He'll be a free agent after this season, but good luck figuring out what his price tag will be. There have been reports that the 25-year-old back wants a $10-million-per-year deal, but that seems like a gross overpayment at the moment.
Aside from Hillis' breakthrough 2010, he has 608 combined yards in his three other NFL seasons. Worse yet, his behavior in Cleveland this year -- which included him sitting out a game with strep throat, then saying his agent told him not to play -- raises some major character red flags.
More and more, it looks like the Browns will have to address their running back spot in the offseason, with Hillis heading elsewhere. For a team that came into 2011 hoping to rely on Hillis and the ground game, that would be a severely disappointing outcome.