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.
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.”
With WRs Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring) and Jordan Norwood (foot) out, the Browns will 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.” ... Shurmur said the Browns hope to re-sign QB Thad Lewis, who was waived on Thursday to make roster room for Haden.