Joe Haden has grown up.
The Cleveland Browns cornerback is a different person in a different place this season, and the ways he’s acting and preparing and living have made him a different player.
Haden has always been good; now he’s great. Marriage and a suspension have brought perspective; an increased professionalism has brought results.
“I think it's mostly, honestly, the way I'm living,” Haden said as the Browns prepared for the Steelers this weekend. “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 acknowledges, too, that his four-game suspension a year ago in Weeks 2-5 was a wake-up call. That suspension contributed significantly to an 0-5 start, and the Browns never recovered. As the season continued, he had issues with being late for practice after being out the night before.
It played into an image Haden did nothing to quash. In his first few seasons, Haden was known as much for being seen at Cavs games and on TV as he was for interceptions. His play never matched the celebrity he gained in Cleveland merely by being a first-round draft pick.
He said it wasn’t that he got caught up in being a celebrity, but that he was suddenly young and wealthy.
“You went from having nothing in your pocket to you got a lot of money and you can do what you want,” Haden said. “You can enjoy yourself, so that's what you're going to do for sure. I mean there's nothing wrong with it. It's all in moderation and [you] make sure you don't get in trouble, but it's a big life-changing experience.
“You're just sitting there and you become a millionaire. You've got to put things in perspective."
Perspective arrived as he reflected on the suspension, which he said was for offseason use of Adderall. That was a wake-up call that Haden might have been taking his talent on a destructive path.
“That really slowed me down and helped me settle down and made me become a better professional …” he said. “You always get hit with curve balls. Everything happens for a reason, and I think the whole suspension thing got me to where I am now.”
Where he is now is in a different level from his previous play, and a special level in the league.
His attention to detail. His stature with his teammates. His candor and willingness to discuss things with the media. All are indicators of an attitude that started in the offseason when defensive coordinator Ray Horton challenged Haden to eliminate the word “potential” from the suggestion that Haden had Pro Bowl potential.
To remind himself, Haden keeps a map of Hawaii in his locker. For some, that would be boastful. The way Haden carries himself, though, it's a humble reminder of where he wants to be.
His offseason marriage to Sarah Mahmoodshahi was the next step. Haden still enjoys life; his wedding was a lavish event at the Fountainbleu on Miami Beach. But he's more properly focused.
“It’s just the whole way of living,” he said. “I’ve just been chilling. Just chilling, resting up and being with my girl and praying a lot more and honestly just the way of life changed me.
“That’s the truth.”
Combine that with the fact Haden is in his fourth year and can use the knowledge he’s gained the right way. Haden is playing as well as any cornerback in the league.
Sunday he had a career game with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Bengals standout A.J. Green had two catches for seven yards, career lows. Whether it’s Green, Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe, Haden has blanketed the top receiver on the opposition. The next challenge will be Antonio Brown, who has 74 catches for 952 yards and five touchdowns.
“I don’t believe that any corner is playing better, at least that we have faced,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. “He’s a very talented player whose experience is catching up with his talent.”
“You’d have to really look with a fine tooth comb to pick out things he’s not doing well,” Horton said.
It’s not hyperbole.
Haden deserves a ton of credit. He took a negative from last season and used it to become more of a pro. He’s accepted the responsibility his experience and position demand. It’s hard to think of one player who has grown more in any single year than Haden has from last year to this. If he maintains this approach, January will be the first of many visits to Hawaii -- something that can only benefit the Browns.
“I'm just in a whole different place,” he said. “And it's finally really starting to click.”