BEREA — Improved technique? Nope. Experience against the NFL’s best wideouts? Not it. Coaching from coordinator Ray Horton? Guess again.
Browns cornerback Joe Haden has a different, and definitive, reason why he’s playing the best football of his career, which will likely result in his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
“It’s mostly, honestly, the way I’m living,” he said. “Just me and my wife, I have a really good relationship with her. We’re doing super-well just relaxing all the time. I’ve been studying the Bible a whole lot more and I’m just really comfortable with myself and how my life is going and honestly that’s what really got me here.”
Haden, 24, celebrated his first Thanksgiving as a married man by hosting the in-laws. It’s the latest example of how much Haden has matured in the last 15 months.
He even resisted overdoing it, telling his family not to come to town until the weekend.
“Let’s do a little Thanksgiving for the first time,” he said Wednesday.
Haden has always had supreme talent. He was the No. 7 pick in the 2010 draft and immediately became Cleveland’s No. 1 corner.
Becoming a true professional took a little longer — and a wedding proposal.
Haden developed a reputation as “Mr. Cleveland” in part because of his attendance, sometimes in full uniform, at Cavaliers and Indians games. He also was a regular at area hot spots and the casino.
His wakeup call came last season in the form of a four-game suspension from the league for violating its policy against performance-enhancing drugs. Haden said he failed the test because he took Adderall, a stimulant.
Haden had plenty of time to think during the month away from the team. He also had time to pop the question to Sarah Mahmoodshahi.
“I was ready to do it for a minute, but since I had a month off, I was like, this is the right time,” Haden said. “If I wouldn’t have been suspended, I probably would’ve got engaged after the season.
“Seemed like the right time. She was the right girl. Everything was working out right. I just happened to have the time to do it.”
Haden and Mahmoodshahi were married in June in South Florida.
The coaching staff should get eHarmony accounts for all the single players if it turns them into Pro Bowlers.
“You get married and you have another responsibility, and that really ties into having responsibility with your teammates,” Horton said. “I think the home life really does settle players down. So, yeah, he’s been a pleasant surprise for me.
“He embodies everything you want in a young corner. He’s athletic, he’s smart, he’s tough, and he’s a very good person on top of that.”
Captain and linebacker D’Qwell Jackson has watched the maturation process of Haden up close. Jackson witnessed the effects of the late nights, and he’s seen the difference.
“He stays at home, he’s got a house, he’s a family guy,” Jackson said. “His family’s always around, he’s got great parents, great family. I’m happy for him.
“Now throughout the week it’s studying your craft and getting your proper rest so you can perform on Sunday. I told him once he got married it was going to help his career, and it has been. He’s playing his best football right now.”
That’s not debatable. He has three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and 17 pass breakups. He’s covered the No. 1 receiver each week, holding them to two touchdowns and an average of 3.8 catches for 42.2 yards.
“Not to disrespect any other corner in the league, but he’s legit,” receiver Davone Bess said. “I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve played against a lot of good ones, and he works every day, so it’s not a surprise.”
Haden’s coming off his worst game, as Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown caught five balls against him for 80 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown. The performance sticks out because he’s been so good.
“I never want to get beat like that,” Haden said of the touchdown. “I was thinking he was running a comeback and he was running a fade. I was fighting to the end to get the ball out.
“He’s a good player making a good play. I’ve definitely got to shrug that one off. How many good plays have I made? That one is definitely not going to get me down.”
Unless the wheels fall off, Haden seems destined for Hawaii. The Pro Bowl’s been a goal of his for years, and he keeps a drawing of the island chain in his locker for constant motivation.
“I would love for it to happen, but I want us to win some games and if it happens along the way it does,” he said. “So talking about that is over with, I really do not want to talk about it no more. As a goal I just want to keep coming out every week and try to put my best foot forward and be the best corner I can be.”
If marriage has been the key to his success, Haden owes his better half a trip to the Pacific, right?
“Oh, she’ll be there for sure,” he said.
The suspension was the low point in Haden’s career. He was seen as a villain for the first time, some of his adoring fans turned on him and the Browns went 0-4 without him to sabotage the season before it got started.
It was also the turning point. And not just because he get engaged.
“When I got suspended, that really slowed me down and made me settle down and made me become a better professional,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason, and I think the whole suspension thing got me to where I am now.”
Safety T.J. Ward has been Haden’s best friend on the team since they came in together as first- and second-round draft choices. Ward’s noticed the lifestyle shift.
“We don’t spend as much time as we used to,” he said. “Time has changed, but definitely he has matured.
“I know (the suspension) hurt him and he saw that he hurt the team. I know that had an effect on him and I know he doesn’t want to be off the field at any time any more. I’m pretty sure he learned a great deal from that suspension.”
Haden and Ward had their third annual turkey giveaway Tuesday at St. Augustine Hunger Center.
“It’s a good thing to do,” Haden said. “We’re so blessed, we’re eating good at the crib, might as well give back.”
Haden has a calmness about him this year that comes with contentment.
“Yeah, I’m good. My family’s good, my wife’s good, my spirituality’s good,” he said. “Now it’s just about ball and trying to get the Browns over the hump.
“This is the first in a long time we really felt like we have the players, we have the talent, we have the ability to make things happen. That’s why it’s so frustrating when we lose, because we know what we can do.”
Quarterback Jason Campbell (concussion) and inside linebackers Craig Robertson (knee) and Tank Carder (shoulder) didn’t practice again Thursday.
Cornerback Buster Skrine (ribs), running back Willis McGahee (knee), defensive end Armonty Bryant (back) and tight end MarQueis Gray (hamstring) were limited.
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