Browns cornerback Joe Haden couldn’t hide his nervousness before the game, nor could he contain his happiness after it ended.
But in the three hours in between, the man known as “Mr. Cleveland” was as cool as a cucumber on the playing field.
Haden made seven tackles, broke up three passes and had an interception Sunday afternoon, playing a major role in the Browns’ 34-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
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It was Cleveland’s first win of the season and — not coincidentally — came in Haden’s return from a four-game NFL suspension.
“Oh my goodness, it was like a big weight came off everybody’s shoulders,” Haden said, flashing his trademark warm smile. “It felt like we won the Super Bowl, honestly. Everyone is just excited.
“I’m just so happy that it happened in the game that I came back. We all made it happen today.”
While there were many heroes for the Browns, including Sheldon Brown, Josh Gordon and Joshua Cribbs, the Florida product was near the top of the list.
Despite only practicing three times last week, Haden didn’t miss a beat in his first action since Sept. 9.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder held his own against Bengals standout A.J. Green and dominated his one-on-one matchups with Cincinnati’s other wide receivers when they schemed away from him.
“I thought Joe did a heck of a job, which isn’t easy,” Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur said. “Even though he stayed in shape and tried to stay into it mentally, I went in thinking there might be some rough spots for him, but he battled and he did a real nice job.”
In addition to not being allowed to play for a month, Haden also was banned from setting foot in the Browns’ training facility throughout his suspension.
When he was allowed back in Berea, Cleveland defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson said the mood in the locker room instantly changed.
“Joe sparked everyone today, but it actually started on Wednesday when he came to practice,” Jackson said. “His intensity and the all-out effort he plays with at all times rubs off on you. When he’s on the field, it really is like having a safety net back there for the rest of the defense.”
Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker played against Haden while suiting up for the Bengals in 2010 and 2011, giving him a unique perspective. Like fellow locker room leader Jackson, Rucker said Haden’s mere presence makes every other player up their game.
“With 23 back there, he’s bound to make a big play at any time — and I’ve seen him make a lot of them before I came here,” Rucker said. “We know what he means to this defense and to this team, which is why we were glad to have him back today.”
So were the fans at Cleveland Browns Stadium, who showered Haden with applause on multiple occasions, beginning when he ran out of the tunnel during pregame warm-ups.
That wasn’t guaranteed to happen, given how badly the 23-year-old hurt the Browns by testing positive for Adderall in the offseason, earning him a four-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Though Haden apologized for his actions and accepted full responsibility for his mistake, he admitted having some doubts about how he would be received.
“But everyone was behind me, all of them,” he said, visibly moved by the crowd’s response. “No negative words, nothing bad about what I’d done, nothing.
“It’s an incredible feeling, man, how much support and love Cleveland has shown me from day one. I always want to give it right back because I love playing for the Browns. This is who I am.”
Haden’s five-year rookie contract runs through 2014, but it’s a safe bet that he’ll be wearing the brown and orange for many seasons beyond that.
Incoming Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III sought out Haden in the locker room following the win, shaking his hand and chatting him up just two days before taking control of the franchise.
The Tennessee billionaire is passionate about football, and it appears he’s grown quite fond of Cleveland’s top cornerback, as well.
“He came in and congratulated me, then he started messing with me about my (Florida) Gators tattoo,” Haden said, laughing. “So I told him I’d get a (Tennessee) Volunteers one, too. You know I’ll do anything for this team.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.