BEREA — Joe Thomas hasn’t forgotten how difficult Peyton Hillis made life last season.
He hasn’t forgiven, either.
With Hillis set to return to Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday as the backup to Kansas City speedster Jamaal Charles, Thomas took several shots at Hillis on Wednesday when asked to recall the year of drama.
“It was a terrible distraction,” said Thomas, the Pro Bowl left tackle. “He crippled our offense. We were struggling to find anybody who could carry the ball after all the injuries we had. To have Peyton going through a contract dispute and basically refusing to play, it was a big distraction.
“But more than anything, he was our starting running back that was a good player who was going to help us be a successful offense. When he’s not there and you don’t have anybody to turn to, it makes it hard to win.”
Hillis became a cult hero after a breakout 2010 season in which he rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was so popular he won a nationwide fan vote and graced the cover of the Madden videogame.
“He was everything people knew about him — hardworking, blue-collar, tough, would do anything for anybody on the team,” Thomas said. “All he cared about was winning, and then all of a sudden the next year all he cared about was trying to get his new contract.”
Hillis made $600,000 in 2011 and wanted an extension, but the Browns weren’t willing to meet his demands.
“I think he was just getting some poor guidance on how to go about his business,” Thomas said. “I don’t begrudge a guy for trying to get his contract. I just think there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and the way he chose really hurt the team.”
Thomas feels Hillis went beyond lobbying through the media. He left the stadium before a game vs. the Dolphins in Week 3 with strep throat when the coaches expected him to play. His agent advised him not to dress.
“You guys tell me. You think strep throat and I don’t know whatever else injuries he had should keep you out of an NFL game? Or several?” Thomas said. “All I know is (center) Alex Mack had appendicitis. His appendix blew up, and he played.”
The locker room began to question Hillis’ motives and commitment, and the whispers got louder when he pulled a hamstring, causing him to miss five games. Thomas made it clear Wednesday he thought Hillis should’ve been playing. One time he referred to Hillis being injured, and used his fingers to mimic quotation marks when he said “injured.”
“He decided that his contract was more important than coming out and playing and helping his team win, and it left us without a running back,” he said.
Thomas is a captain and respected voice in the locker room. He’s usually completely calm, but talking about Hillis gets him fired up, and he admitted the issues became personal.
“The frustrating thing to a lot of teammates was you try to talk to him and you try to tell him, ‘That’s not the right way to do it if you want to get your big contract,’” Thomas said. “He just wouldn’t listen to anybody. People who thought they were very close friends with him … he wouldn’t listen to anybody.
“He thought he knew what was the right way to do it and it ended up not being the right way and it ended up hurting everybody.”
The off-the-field issues weren’t just related to his contract. He didn’t show up for a Halloween party for the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland and blamed a miscommunication. He skipped injury rehab on a Tuesday to get married in Arkansas.
“It was kind of one weird thing after another,” Thomas said. “When you’re injured and you should be getting treatment, to go do your own thing repeatedly was just disrespectful to his teammates.”
Coach Pat Shurmur was affected as much as anyone by Hillis missing games. He was asked to put Hillis’ turbulent 2011 into words.
“I’m going to talk about Peyton Hillis the 2012 version,” he said. “No, I won’t put it into words.”
The return of coach Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, quarterback Brady Quinn and Hillis was always going to bring intrigue to the game Sunday. Thomas added spice.
“When you go back to play your old team, you’re going to look to put on a show,” safety Usama Young said. “So I’m sure he’s fired up.
“He’s an athletic dude, an athletic big back. He can move. He can juke. He can run you over, so you’ve got to bring your pads tight.”
The Browns let Hillis walk when he became a free agent, and the Chiefs signed him to a one-year, $2.8 million contract. He’s been slowed by an ankle injury and has 193 rushing yards with a 3.3 average per carry.
“This past week he was the guy I expected him to be,” said Crennel, who added there have been no off-field issues. “He ran well. He can block. He can catch. I also look for him to continue that.”
The Browns replaced Hillis with Trent Richardson, the No. 3 pick in the draft. He’s started every game and has 273 touches despite being less than 100 percent with injured rib cartilage.
“Obviously he was nicked up earlier in the season and he still goes out there and runs people over on Sunday,” Thomas said. “And I think you can appreciate that.”
Thomas didn’t appreciate Hillis in 2011 and was glad he didn’t return in 2012.
“I think it was better for both sides,” he said. “At that point, the situation with him here was toxic. He didn’t want to be here and players didn’t want him here and it’s better just for a fresh start at that point.”