Maybe Peyton Hillis is right. Maybe there's no such thing as the "Madden Curse."
Its existence is the stuff of debate, but for Hillis -- mired in one of the strangest NFL seasons in memory -- the rush of fanfare he bathed in after being named the cover boy of a simple video game has come with a price.
Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports on Friday painted a stark portrait of Hillis' crumbling circle of support in the Browns' locker room, with about eight veterans roping the running back this week "into a meeting room for an intervention-style" face-to-face to discuss his state of mind during a campaign discolored by stalled contract talks and questions about his desire to play through injury.
"A few guys tried to talk to him, to make him understand the best way to go about things is to put your head down and do the best you possibly can," said offensive tackle Joe Thomas. "Because if the Browns aren't going to pay you, some team will break the bank -- and either way you need to play hard."
Linebacker Scott Fujita acknowledged the drama around Hillis has dissolved into a sideshow: "The fact that everyone has to get asked about (Hillis' situation) by the local beat writers every day, it's started to create a distraction, and it's a shame that it has to be that way. I'm never gonna be in a position to question a player's toughness. I just want him to be healthy and in the right frame of mind to help the team. More than anything else, that's what our conversation with him was about."
Players were piqued to see Hillis, sidelined with a hamstring injury, toying around with third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis in a passing contest to hit the crossbar at Candlestick Park before last Sunday's loss, with one player telling Silver, "It was a bad look, and it did not sit well with any of us."
"I've never seen anything like it," one veteran said. "Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team -- but now he's like a different guy. It's like he's in a funk that he can't get out of, and it's killing us, because we really need him. And we've told him that. But we're at the point where we just don't know what to do."
Neither do Cleveland's fans. Starved to see their Browns become something more than a decade-long train wreck, the city fell hard for Hillis last season, viewing his battering-ram style and salt-of-the-earth persona as an extension of a city that's been burned one too many times, but apparently never enough.