Then Charles went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second game, and Hillis limped through the year (thanks to a case of strep throat and a bum hamstring), playing only 10 games and rushing for a career low 3.6 yards per attempt. Their fates came together again yesterday when the Chiefs signed Hillis to a reported one-year contract for $3 million.
Hillis is, in part, a replacement for Leron McClain. The fullback signed his own three-year deal with San Diego yesterday. It's an upgrade because while McClain was a quote machine and terrific cheerleader on the sideline, he carried the ball only 15 times — total — in 10 games and wasn't clearing much space for Thomas Jones and Jackie Battle (both currently free agents). Hillis played fullback in Denver and has the hands to catch passes out of the backfield. He had 61 catches two seasons ago.
This isn't a huge investment. The Chiefs are committed to Hillis only for a single year at $3 million. They're also giving him two shots to show the Denver Broncos exactly why the franchise was wrong to trade him in 2010. Ideally, they get a motivated runner who can punish defenses and free up Charles to run wild in the second half of games. In reality, they've got a talented 26-year-old back, who couldn't find the field last year in Cleveland.
This would have been a marquee free-agent signing in 2011. Today, it's a calculated gamble. The Chiefs need a big signing — as much to alter the perception of the fans that the franchise is doing things on the cheap as to improve the talent of the field. As long as they're stockpiling Madden cover athletes, they might as well take a shot at two quarterbacks: Drew Brees (who received the franchise tag from New Orleans) and Vince Young.
It's time for the Chiefs to go outside their comfort zone, even if that means failing miserably. Chiefs fans can live with failure. They can't live with a lack of effort. It's the same standard that Hillis will be judged by this year.