Peyton Hillis continues to be one of the NFL’s great mysteries. He went from the cover of Madden to out of the NFL entirely in less than a half-decade without suffering any career-threatening injuries. That never happens.
What exactly is at the root of his demise remains unclear. He was never the same after he failed to negotiate a contract extension with the Cleveland Browns in 2011. Was he merely a flash in the pan when he rose to stardom or did that season, in essence, ruin him, because of how both he and the Browns approached his situation?
We will never know the answer for sure. We will also never even know whether Hillis actually could have salvaged his career in the right situation. He flamed out of the NFL after the 2014 season, which suggests that he regressed beyond repair, but some questions still remain.
The most notable: Could he have rebounded with the Kansas City Chiefs?
Hillis signed with them after leaving Cleveland in 2012. At the time, playing for the Chiefs meant being Jamaal Charles’ backup, which isn’t a bad gig. Charles was never the poster board for durability, and Kansas City’s offensive line was set up to protect him both as a runner and pass-catcher. It seemed like the perfect landing spot for someone who needed to reboot their career out of the backfield.
The problem? Playing backup to a healthy Charles also meant sacrificing volume. Hillis churned through just 85 rushes for 309 yards in 13 appearances, including two starts. His yards per attempt weren’t particularly special (3.6), but he wasn’t ineffective enough that he could be entirely written off. Plus, he also proved to be a worthy option in the passing game on the few possessions in which he was used as a receiver.
Still, the Chiefs elected not to bring him back in 2013. Hillis instead went on to the New York Giants, in what turned out to be his final stop. And yet, Kansas City also returned to relevance that next season.
Alex Smith was placed under center, Charles remained healthy, and they hummed. Had Hillis been put on that team, rather than the one piloted by Brady Quinn under center in 2012, there’s a chance he would’ve been set up for more success, even as a backup.
Who knows what could’ve happened from there. Maybe the Chiefs are then convinced to bring him back, and then maybe he’s given the high-volume chance that was eventually bestowed upon Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware when Charles was injured a couple of seasons later.
As is the theme with Hillis’ career in general, we’ll never actually know.