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BEREA, Ohio — No matter the coast or the opponent, Peyton Hillis can’t seem to outrun the drama.
Cleveland’s running back, who since the season started has been involved in controversies surrounding contract negotiations with the Browns and his decision to sit out a game with strep throat, is again at the center of a mini-mystery surrounding an injury he sustained in Sunday’s game at Oakland.
Hillis is nursing a strained left hamstring, an injury Browns coach Pat Shurmur said happened on a carry in the first quarter of Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the Raiders. An MRI taken Monday confirmed Hillis’ injury, and Shurmur said it’s too early to say he’ll miss this week’s game against Seattle.
“Those injuries can take a couple of days or they can take however long,” Shurmur said. “But it’s a hamstring injury.”
OK, that much is clear.
Here’s where it gets a tad confusing.
On Sunday, the Browns did not announce Hillis’ injury until late in the third quarter, leading to speculation Shurmur was benching his player. As Hillis stood on the sideline holding his helmet, TV commentators wondered why Hillis wasn’t in the game when the Browns (2-3) were within striking distance and had planned to feature him against the Raiders.
So, coach, was Hillis hurt?
“That’s an easy one,” Shurmur said Monday. “You can be assured that he had a hamstring injury. That you can be assured.”
Later, in an attempt to clarify any vagaries surrounding Hillis’ injury, Shurmur unintentionally added new elements of uncertainty.
After Hillis got hurt, Shurmur said he was told by Cleveland’s trainers the bruising back was “only to be used in emergencies.” And, Shurmur implied that Hillis, who returned to the game for two plays in the fourth quarter to help with pass protection, did so without permission.
“He just kind of ran back in there,” Shurmur said. “We knew that he was injured, and he was just a last resort.”
Hillis came back in to replace second-year back Montario Hardesty, who struggled with his blocking and nearly got quarterback Colt McCoy hurt on a blindside blitz.
Shurmur later backtracked on his comments regarding Hillis’ unexpected return, saying he was sent into the game by Cleveland’s coaches.
“We were aware he went back on the field to pass protect,” Shurmur said. “He didn’t go out there on his own.”
Shurmur said he was unaware of the long delay between Hillis getting hurt and it being announced by the Browns’ public relations staff. At one point, reporters were told Hillis was not hurt.
“In the heat of the game, the last thing I’m thinking about is letting the press box know,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything to try to keep it from somebody.”
With talks between his agent, Kennard McGuire, and the Browns stalled on a contract extension, Hillis, who rushed for 14 yards on six carries Sunday, said last week he was worried about his future with Cleveland and beginning to wonder if he’ll get a long-term deal.
There’s no telling what may happen next, but Shurmur insisted the Browns are not shopping Hillis before Monday’s 4 p.m. trading deadline.
“He’s not on the trading block,” Shurmur said.
Maybe so, but his reduced role in Cleveland’s offense — at least through five games — has fueled theories the Browns no longer value Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. However, Shurmur said last week that Hillis would get the “bulk” of the carries against Oakland and that appeared to be the game plan until he got hurt.
With Hillis out, and McCoy unable to throw deep, the Raiders stacked their defensive front to shut down Cleveland’s running game and blitzed constantly.
“We really wanted to feed Peyton early and often,” lamented Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas. “When he came down with that injury early, you’ve kind of got to scramble a little bit, decide what you want to do going forward. Also a little bit of that was the way Oakland was playing us, they broke tendency.
“They were trying to pressure us with six, seven, and eight-man blitzes to stop the run, but also to bring one more blitzer than we had a blocker. So it was a little bit tough when Peyton went down, so I’m hoping that he can get healthy and we can feed him a bunch next week.”
Hillis was not available to the media Monday as Shurmur changed the schedule for team meetings after the late-night flight back from the West coast.
Shurmur has already had to deal with a season’s worth of issues in his first five games as Cleveland’s coach.
Besides the latest Hillis matter, wide receiver Josh Cribbs complained after Sunday’s game about his role in the offense, labeling it “very insignificant.” Also, McCoy had another subpar performance, completing just 21 of 35 passes — most of them short attempts. And, Shurmur took the blame for the Browns “selling out” and trying to block a field goal in the third quarter only to be burned by a fake as the Raiders threw a 35-yard score.
Browns fans have focused some of their angst on Shurmur, who is taking it all in stride.
“I’ve lived this before,” he said. “First for 10 years in Philadelphia and two years in St. Louis, and we were building. I get it. I understand it. It’s about winning football games. So our focus is getting this team ready to play Seattle and getting a win.
NOTES: Shurmur confirmed LB Scott Fujita suffered a concussion and will continue to be evaluated. Also, S Ray Ventrone strained a hamstring. Shurmur said CB Joe Haden (knee sprain) is making improvement, but it’s too early to know if he’ll play on Sunday. ... Browns C Alex Mack played despite having an appendectomy on Oct. 3. “It was never really a doubt that he was going to play,” Thomas said. “I know he was in a great deal of pain especially early on in the week, but unless he was in a wheelchair, he was going to be out there playing.”