BEREA, Ohio — For the longest time, Peyton Hillis refused to consider he might have been cursed by a video game. Not possible, he insisted.
Well, Hillis' strange season seems to have changed his mind.
After all the drama triggered by his quarrel with Browns management over a new contract, his controversial decision to sit out a game with strep throat on the advice of his agent, the nagging hamstring injury that caused him to miss five straight games, his awkward rapport with teammates and his perhaps too-little-too-late flourish to end the season, Hillis now thinks he may have been jinxed.
"Things didn't work in my favor this year," Hillis said. "There's a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses. Ain't no doubt about it."
Blame it all on Madden.
Hillis began his second season in Cleveland atop the pro football word. Following a breakout year with the Browns, he won a nationwide fan vote to be the cover figure for "Madden NFL 12," the best-selling video game that has earned a reputation for dooming any player who graces its jacket.
Hillis is the latest to succumb to its spell.
Now, as he prepares for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hillis faces an uncertain future. Throughout the turbulence of 2011, the soon-to-be-free agent has maintained he wants to come back to Cleveland.
The question is: Do the Browns want Hillis?
Browns coach Pat Shurmur was asked several times this week if Hillis, who ran for 1,177 yards last season and has only 557 this season, is part of the team's plans going forward. Shurmur was noncommittal with each answer, saying the decision would be made following an offseason evaluation.
"As we look at our roster and we look at building our team, we've got to consider everything," Shurmur said. "One thing you've seen about Peyton is that, in the last month or so, he's gotten himself healthy and he's performed well. That's the Peyton everyone was used to seeing a year ago."
Last season, Hillis plowed over defenders and blasted his way into the hearts of Browns fans. However, until the past two weeks against Arizona and Baltimore, Hillis has been a major disappointment. Some of it can be attributed to injury, but some of it has been self-inflicted controversy.
Hillis' choice to skip the Sept. 25 game against Miami with a bout of strep throat didn't sit well with some of his teammates, who wished he would have at least tried to play instead of bailing out before kickoff. Later, he missed a treatment for his hamstring when he left during a work week to get married, another misstep that didn't sit well in Cleveland's locker room.
He has burned some bridges, and it remains to be seen if they can be rebuilt with the Browns.
Hillis has made some amends.
In the past two weeks, Hillis has rampaged like his former self. He followed up a 99-yard performance against the Cardinals with a season-high 112 against the Ravens, averaging 4.7 yards per carry against one of the NFL's best defenses. The outings have invigorated Hillis.
"I think people can see when I'm 100 percent, I am running hard. I can do pretty good," he said. "That's how I want people to see. I want people to see I'm not a one-hit wonder, that I can go out there and play well and run hard like I always do."
Hillis and the Browns ended talks about a new contract earlier this season, hoping it would eliminate any distraction for the 25-year-old. He's not aware of any renewed negotiations between his club and agent Kennard McGuire.
Hillis is happy, finally healthy and hopes his days with the Browns aren't down to a precious few. He said it has occurred to him that it could be his final game with Cleveland.
"It has," he said. "But I have a big heart. I want to do my best for the fans. I really enjoyed my time playing in a Browns uniform and I hope I continue to be here. I know these past couple games I played my hardest and played my best. People are going to see I still got it and I want to be here.
"I'm a Cleveland Brown at heart. Ever since I've been here, I fell in love with the fans and the city and the people who live here."
Whether cursed or not, Hillis said he has no regrets.
"I've always heard there's no such things as accidents," he said. "What has happened, happened. I wouldn't go back and change anything. I'm tremendously happy as a person and as a football player now and I know this is the way it's supposed to be."
NOTES: Browns QB Colt McCoy was officially ruled out of Sunday's game with the concussion he sustained three weeks ago against the Steelers. McCoy finished with 2,733 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 13 starts. "I think he improved quite a bit from the first game to the last game he played in," Shurmur said. ... Starting RT Tony Pashos will also miss the finale with what Shurmur described as a "stomach issue." ... Browns beat writers voted linebacker D'Qwell Jackson as the team's player of the year and safety Mike Adams the "Good Guy" for his cooperation with the media. "I commend you guys for finally getting it right," Adams joked. "I appreciate it. It's an honor."