Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
No win: Browns fans are so jaded from losing that they give veteran players no breaks.
The ones that leave on their own are branded traitors for jumping ship. The ones cast aside by the organization are flicked off as “good riddance to bad rubbish.” And the ones who stay are derided as “over-paid losers and part of the problem.”
Joe Haden falls into the last category, of course. Haden’s horrible 2015 season fed the beast of social media poisoning pro sports today.
In the second year of a record $68 million contract, he was active only five games because of rib, finger, ankle and two concussion injuries. The five games were not Haden’s finest and then he was ripped for not sucking it up and not caring as his team careened to a 3-13 season.
Palling around with serial partiers Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon didn’t help Haden’s lessening popularity.
At one point in the season, an exasperated Haden commented on Cleveland sports fans, “You get hit upside the head when you lose and they pump you up to the sky if you win.”
After all of that, Haden had surprise ankle surgery in March that sidelined him throughout the OTA and minicamp season and will delay his practice availability in training camp. Haden said the injury, originally suffered in the fifth game last season, was aggravated in offseason training.
All of which intensified questions on social media about Haden’s commitment, his motivation and his future with the Browns.
To which I say his commitment is stronger than ever, his motivation is as intense as ever and his future is as bright as ever.
Hue’s the man: There might not be a player more invigorated by the arrival of coach Hue Jackson than Haden. A month ago, Haden said Jackson “is the best thing that’s happened since I’ve been here.”
In an interview with ESPN Cleveland at the conclusion of minicamp, Haden expounded on his optimism and why he believes Jackson will turn things around.
“It’s a feeling in the facility you can’t describe,” Haden said. “Everybody’s just legitimately bought in. You don’t hear any ulterior motives. Everybody wants to win and there’s no reason we can’t turn into that team. I know it’s difficult for the outside world to hear that, but inside it’s so believable for us. You have to believe it and you have to feel it. Just the work we’ve put in. I think this is the best work we’ve put in. And the way the coaches hold you to a standard that if you don’t do it good enough, you have to go back and do it again. They don’t accept anything but perfection.”
Haden earned the first of his two Pro Bowl berths under defensive coordinator Ray Horton and secondary coach Lou Cioffi in 2013. The fact they have returned under Jackson adds to Haden’s optimism.
But Jackson’s preaching to the team and his dedication to work is what really has Haden looking forward to 2016.
“I’m one of the top corners in the league and I’m gonna get back to that level for sure. But it doesn’t prove anything when you play for the Browns and you get laughed at. It’s not cool,” Haden said.
“So, just winning, having that atmosphere of we’re gonna win games, we’re gonna win the division, that realistic vision that we have. That’s the goal, the plan, and with Coach Jackson having that vision and talking it and making you feel like ‘why not us?’ The thing you have to do is work at it.”
Haden is further spirited by Jackson’s promise to have a physical training camp.
“For sure,” he said. “You have to put the work in. If you’re hitting, tackling live, you’re going for it. How are you going to get better at tackling if you don’t tackle? You have to be physical. Training camp’s gonna be a tough camp. If we want to win, that’s what winning teams do.”
Rolls off his back: The fact Haden won’t be ready to practice with his team when training camp opens on (probably) July 29 will only intensify the social media hate on him.
He can deal with it.
“I realize with Cleveland … I love the city. You have to understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “They haven’t really had [a championship team]. Believeland and all that stuff.
“They want a winner. They’re passionate. They put their heart and soul out there. Losing sucks. They don’t like it. It’s something that pisses them off. So I know where to put that. I don’t hold that against them. They just want me to get be healthy and want me to play.
“I’m in a whole different place. I just want to win. We haven’t put a good product on the field. So that’s what we have to do. Winning answers everything. We have to win to get them right and for us to be feeling like we’re doing what we need to do.”
Haden used the example of nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas as indicative of the feeling on the team. At the conclusion of minicamp, Thomas broke down the team in a huddle and said this was the most excited he’s ever been heading into a new season.
I asked Haden if Thomas’ dream of playing a home playoff game before his career is over is reachable.
“I can see it,” he answered, “but there’s so much work to be done. And I feel we’ll do it with these coaches. I just think with everybody having winning on their mind and no ulterior motives, no sidebars, coach calls them ‘no energy vampires.’
“We just have dudes that bought in. No bickering, no complaining. I feel like [I’m] a legit leader of this team and when you hear people not putting the work in, that’s just not acceptable. You don’t need to be here.”