BEREA – Joe Haden didn’t need long to realize a fact of married life: You hang out with your buddies a lot less.
Haden, 24, wasn’t complaining about the lack of quality time with his friends since marrying longtime girlfriend Sarah Mahmoodshahi last month. Rather, he used it as an example of how he’s matured in the last year.
“I’d say a lot different,” he said Friday when asked about his off-field life. “Everything back at home is a lot more settled. It’s just a security blanket.
“I’ve got my wife back at home now -- it’s not my girlfriend -- I don’t have my boys coming over all the time. She’s like, all right, we’re grabbing dinner tonight. That’s good. It’s just a lot more relaxed. I have to focus on a whole lot less about my friends coming over, whatever. Just chill with my wife and come out here and do my thing with football.”
Haden, who was suspended for four games in 2012, certainly did his thing Friday on the second day of training camp.
He won the battle with receiver Josh Gordon for a breakup in a one-on-one drill, then had an interception return for a touchdown in team drills when he jumped a 3-yard out to Gordon and stepped in front of the pass from Brandon Weeden. Haden almost had another interception on a pass intended for Travis Benjamin.
He set the tone for a secondary that owned the receivers during the practice.
“If I see it, I just go for it,” Haden said of his pick-six. “They ran the double out, so I knew they weren’t going to run the double out and up. When he ran the out, I just jumped it.”
Haden made the same sort of plays last season during camp. The problem was, he didn’t make any of them in the first four games because he was suspended for violating the NFL’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs. (He claimed he failed the test because of the stimulant Adderall.)
Haden had a solid season when he returned – 51 tackles, three interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble in 11 games – but the damage was done. He had lost his status with the fans as Mr. Cleveland and the team was in an insurmountable 0-4 hole.
“It was a humbling thing. It was one of the lowest points,” said Haden, who said he’s back in the fans’ good graces. “Basically, I don’t really like talking about it. But it was a low point in my life, and now everything seems like it’s on the up and up. So I’m just happy and praying every day.
“Things are going really good for me.”
Haden sparred with former coach Pat Shurmur at times, including getting kicked out of a camp practice, and has embraced the clean slate of new coach Rob Chudzinski.
“I took the approach, from early on, that everybody has a fresh start,” Chudzinski said. “Regardless of what was said of him, I was not going to listen to any of that. I wanted, for us and our staff, to make our own conclusions on evaluating guys.
“Joe is a guy that I do feel is critical to be a leader and show the maturity level that you would expect out of a guy that is coming into the time of his career that he is at.”
Haden is entering his fourth season after being the seventh pick of the 2010 draft. He’s started 33 of 42 games with nine interceptions, 47 passes defensed and two sacks.
“Coach Chud, he likes my approach. I’m approaching it just with a fresh start,” Haden said. “You know, last year was last year, what happened is in the past.
“So just coming in, and I feel like I honestly owe the team, I owe myself, I owe the fans, I owe the Browns just everything I got this year as to keep going and just be elite and hold things down.”
Haden and strong safety T.J. Ward, his good friend, have embraced the role of veteran leaders. Besides cornerback Chris Owens, signed in free agency, they are the senior members of the secondary.
“We’re comfortable, we know the game, we’re comfortable with our coaches and, it’s crazy, we get respect,” Haden said. “I just talked to one of the corners today. He was talking about how ‘watched you when you were in high school.’ Just knowing that they respect us and me being able to lead by example, just going out there and doing our thing, that just makes them want to listen to us a little more.”
If Chudzinski and Haden are correct, the young guys will be paying attention to Haden like he’s E.F. Hutton.
“Joe has really stepped up as a leader, has stepped up as a professional,” Chudzinski said. “Joe wants to focus on improving and being more consistent and I see that in his approach. I think he has done a great job in that way and I’m expecting him to keep getting better and better.
“He has potential and that means he has ability. If he continues to develop and work on his knowledge, details and drive, then I think he has the ability to fill that potential.”
“Elite” was thrown around a lot Friday, mostly by reporters. Haden has his definition and wants to get there, but isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“An elite cornerback is a top-five corner in the league,” Haden said. “Just one of those dudes that you can … there’s not too many of ’em. There’s not too many people that can use the word elite and I want to be one of the five that can use it.”
Is he already elite? If not, how far from it?
“I’m just working hard every day,” he said. “I don’t want to be the judge of that. I’ll let my play speak for itself.”
Haden has two years left on his rookie contract at about $7 million a year. He’s a candidate for an extension if the new regime believes his arrow’s pointed up on and off the field.
Earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl would be a good indicator.
“Every year that’s the goal,” Haden said. “The goal is to be one of the best at your position, and to get recognized there would be special.
“But I want us to win some games, and if you win games, that gets the whole squad there.”
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