BEREA — Kareem Hunt sounded like he was saying goodbye … again.
After leading the Browns with a career-high nine rushing touchdowns, the veteran back plans to hit the free agent market in March.
“I’m definitely going to test free agency and see what the right option is for me or what’s best for me and my family and everything,” Hunt said Sunday as the players cleaned out their lockers a day after losing in the wild card round of the playoffs. “But this is always home for me. It’s Cleveland until I die, so I’m going to have a special place in my heart for them.”
His time with his hometown team appeared over at this time last year after four seasons. He didn’t get the contract extension or trade he sought during the year, and the Browns didn’t attempt to re-sign him before or during free agency.
Hunt, 28, received interest from other teams but remained unsigned throughout the offseason and training camp. When Nick Chubb was lost for the season in Week 2, the Browns and Hunt reconciled.
“It is crazy how certain things work out,” he said. “I guess God had a plan for me to come back to Cleveland and try to help make a run.”
He didn’t rule out another return next season, but the Browns have a number of roster decisions to make and could choose to go younger at the position. They have Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong Jr. returning, and Chubb is projected to be back sometime during the season following two knee surgeries to repair torn ligaments.
“Ain’t closing no doors or nothing like that,” Hunt said. “If the opportunity presents itself and it’s right here, then I wouldn’t be opposed to coming back. It’s my hometown and I want to do nothing but help them win the Super Bowl.”
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He was one of a number of players who came off the bench or couch to help the Browns overcome a series of serious injuries. He rushed for 411 yards, a 3.0 average and nine touchdowns in 15 games, starring in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
His nose for the end zone continued in the 45-14 wild card loss, as he scored both touchdowns — a 1-yard run and 11-yard catch.
“I’m so appreciative of him and the way he played and the style with which he played,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Obviously pre-injury to Nick, we didn’t have a spot, but to Kareem’s credit, he stayed in great shape. We brought him in, worked him out, he looked great, picked back up the system right away and played really good football for us and made plays in high-leverage moments and scored touchdowns.
“And obviously yesterday having the ability to make a play on the goal line, make a play in the red zone. So he provided huge, huge value for us. And just he’s a battler. Loves the way he runs, the style in which he runs, gave us a huge jolt that we needed.”
Hunt believes his touchdowns this season showed the league he can still perform at a high level.
“I’ve always been able to play and that’s the thing,” he said. “I feel like before I let some of my mental get in the way of that and just tried to do my own thing. But it worked out. I’m happy I was able to contribute and help this team.”
He didn’t know if the temporary break from the Browns was necessary and wishes them well.
“It’s my ultimate hope no matter what, even if I’m playing for another team, I would always be happy and satisfied if they bring a championship to Cleveland,” he said. “Shoot, I’d probably be at the parade cheering them on, too. I wish nothing but the best for the organization and the Cleveland Browns and I’m happy that I got to be a part of this journey for so long.”
If his time here is done, he left a mark in the franchise’s playoff record book. His five touchdowns rank second to Earnest Byner’s six.
“It makes me feel great,” he said. “It’s something that’ll always be remembered. You can’t take that from me. It is set in stone.
“But I wanted a bigger picture. I can throw them touchdowns away for a dub. I don’t even care if I score two touchdowns. Win.”