Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Right or wrong?: If the culture of the Browns indeed is changing, then the case of Joe Haden offers the opportunity to gauge by how much.
Are the Browns going to be right on one of these veteran players dumped for underperforming his contract?
Or are the Pittsburgh Steelers going to become the latest team to benefit from another Browns player released to greener pastures?
The season opener on Sunday – Year 2 of the New Browns Order – offers a timely convergence of two rivals with vastly different ways of doing things, and Haden is right in the middle.
Haden is not good enough to play cornerback for the Browns, who need all the help they can get at every position?
Haden is good enough to play for the Steelers, who are loaded at almost every position?
One team is right and one team is wrong.
Greener pastures: I asked Haden on a conference call Wednesday if the Browns cut him because of performance or because of his $11 million salary.
“I would say both,” Haden answered. “Because it was two years that I didn’t really play that much ball. This year I’m expecting to be back, healthy, feeling good and ready to go. It was just a business decision that they made that the salary wasn’t matching up to my last two years of production. That is really how they felt so they decided that they wanted to cut my salary.”
The Browns offered Haden a chance to stay for $7 million. Haden said no. The Steelers offered Haden the same money. Haden said, “Where do I sign?”
“If I had a chance to play for a team like Pittsburgh … they are a really good team, a first-class organization, [Head] Coach [Mike] Tomlin, I knew a couple of players on the team and just seeing the direction they have been going and the consistency and how they play. I was like, ‘I could go be a part of that and try to have something special,’” Haden said.
He swears he wasn’t aiming to avenge the Browns twice a year.
“No, it wasn’t [about that],” Haden said. “For the Steelers to be one of the teams, it was the best team that wanted me. I was just looking forward to trying to get to the playoffs, trying to spread my career to play where I haven’t played. With them, I knew the opportunity was going to be there. It had really nothing to do with playing against the Browns twice a year.”
Through his seven seasons in Cleveland, over five football regimes, Haden saw several players depart for greener pastures.
T.J. Ward won a Super Bowl with Denver. Jabaal Sheard won a Super Bowl with New England. Ahtyba Rubin went to the playoffs twice with Seattle. Mitchell Schwartz went to the playoffs with Kansas City. Alex Mack and Taylor Gabriel went to the Super Bowl with Atlanta. There were others, such as Mike Adams and Benjamin Watson and D’Qwell Jackson and Brian Hoyer.
Why do players keep leaving the Browns and prospering?
“I don’t know,” Haden said. “I think some of the good guys that we let go, they go to better situations for them. Speaking of one like Taylor Gabriel. He was a bright slot receiver, but when you have a quarterback that is giving it to him like Matt Ryan and the offense that they have, they are able to shine. Just different positions that people are put in. I think a lot of times when they left, they just put themselves in better positions.”
Get your popcorn: As Steelers coach, Tomlin knows Haden as well as any opponent.
“[I] always had appreciation not only for his talents but just how he carries himself,” Tomlin said. “The professionalism, the way that he represented that organization … just always had a great deal of respect for him.”
The Browns know Haden better. And the fact is no coach apparently stood on a table and argued against his release. Coordinator Gregg Williams put Haden on notice to pick up his game the first time the two men met in March.
I asked Haden and Tomlin if they thought Hue Jackson would have his big-armed stud quarterback, DeShone Kizer, throw at Haden, early and often.
“I anticipate Coach [Jackson] is going to try to do what is required to win the game and throwing the ball deep is a part of that. He has thrown the ball deep on us in the past, regardless of who we have had at corner,” Tomlin said.
“Honestly, that doesn’t matter,” Haden said. “I expect every time I am lined up out there that they might throw the ball to me. I’m going to be locked in. I’m going to be ready to go and be ready to make some plays. If they do, they do. If they don’t, they don’t. I’m just going to be ready for whatever.”
Haden is in the cross hairs of two rival organizations doing their business in different ways. Is this about money or is this about football?
Sunday’s game won’t be the definitive answer. But it would help sell everybody on the validity of the Browns’ changing culture if they got this one right.