BEREA, Ohio (AP) — With a selfish act, Joe Haden damaged more than his reputation.
In getting suspended by the NFL, Haden hurt his teammates, coaches and Browns fans, who have always embraced the likable cornerback.
On Sunday, he can begin making amends.
Back from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancers, Haden will return to the starting lineup as the winless Browns (0-5) host the Cincinnati Bengals. Haden, who was banned after testing positive for the stimulant Adderall, believes he owes people he let down.
“In a sense, definitely,” Haden said Friday. “It’s my team. I feel like I should have been out there with them and it’s my fault I wasn’t. In a way I do feel like I owe them. In the same way I feel like I did my time, so when I’m out there I’m still going to give it my all. I’m not going to try to do anything extra and play outside myself.
“But I think they’re going to notice I’m back.”
Haden’s return should provide a big boost to the Browns, who have lost 11 straight games dating to last season and must win to avoid setting the franchise record for consecutive losses. Without their top cornerback — and arguably best defensive player — the Browns had to move players around in their secondary and didn’t have Haden to shut down the opposition’s top receiver.
It started in Week 2 when Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green had 7 catches for 58 yards and one touchdown. Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson (7 catches, 61 yards, TD), Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin (9 catches, 131 yards) and New York’s Victor Cruz (3 TDs) all benefited from Haden being out and had big games.
This week, Haden comes back just in time to match up again with Green, renewing a rivalry that goes back to college.
Although he hasn’t played since the Sept. 9 opener against Philadelphia, Haden feels he can mirror Green.
“For sure,” he said. “Whatever the coaches want me to do. If they want me to match A.J., that’s what I plan on doing.”
Haden, who stayed in shape by working out at a gym he owns during his suspension, said he didn’t feel rusty during his first full week of practice. Browns coach Pat Shurmur didn’t notice any difference in the Haden who returned from the one who left.
“I see the same old Joe,” Shurmur said.
That’s a relief for the Browns. They need Haden’s ability as a coverage corner, tackler and playmaker. His absence had a trickle-down effect throughout the entire defense, which could be missing starting defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (lower leg) and linebacker Scott Fujita (neck/shoulder) against the Bengals. Cleveland will be without cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who will likely miss a few weeks with a sprained ankle.
Since Haden returned, Shurmur has already detected a difference in Cleveland’s defense.
“His presence is felt when you see him out there, when you watch him challenge balls and challenge receivers in practice,” he said. “He got his hand on a couple balls and picked one off today. When you add a good player to the lineup, it’s obvious just watching him play. The other players around him feel that. You build from there.”
Haden, too, senses the Browns rallying with him back around.
He’s seeing more smiles and energy.
“I could tell out there at practice,” he said. “I don’t know how it was when I wasn’t here, but since I’m back, we’re up, just amped. We’re hyped. You know I like to talk. I like to have fun. I’m smiling, making plays. When we do that, me and (safety) T.J. (Ward) just jump up in the air and hit each other. Honestly, since I haven’t been here, just going through every week and taking a loss, I’m coming in here fresh and bringing a spark, like let’s get this thing going.
“Let’s get it back on the road.”
Haden has always felt the support from his teammates, many of whom stayed in contact with him during his suspension.
As for Browns fans, Haden believes they still have his back. He knows many were disappointed by his actions, but Haden has received “zero negative feedback” in the days since being reinstated.
While he was away, Haden, who likes to be seen around the city during the offseason, worried if his suspension would damage his relationship with fans.
“I like to interact with people and I didn’t want it to put a damper on everything I’ve done because it’s not like I’m trying to put on an act,” he said. “I really enjoy having fun with people, so me not being able to do that kind of hurt me a little bit. But they accepted me back. I see how they feel when I’m not out there playing, they expect me to be out there. But I was mad at myself, so I think that just me being back now everybody embraced it so it’s basically over.”
Haden’s suspension gave him a new appreciation for what he has. He has vowed not to jeopardize his career again.
Once he’s on the field, Haden won’t take anything for granted and he hopes the Bengals test him early.
“I’m ready, ” he said. “I don’t feel rushed. I just feel like I just missed a couple games and I’m right back. It wasn’t like it was a downfall. I wasn’t just in the house eating chips and stuff. I was doing what I needed to do, so I feel I’m right back and ready to play.”
NOTES: With WRs Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) and Jordan Norwood (foot) out, the Browns activated rookie Josh Cooper for Sunday’s game. Cooper was a teammate of QB Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and hopes the former college buddies can connect in the pros. “It’s unbelievable,” Cooper said of the chance to play with Weeden. “It’s something you don’t really see happen too much with other players. It would be nice to get to do that.” … Norwood was placed on injured reserve but is eligible to return to the roster in six weeks. … Shurmur said the Browns hope to re-sign QB Thad Lewis, who was waived on Thursday to make roster room for Haden.