BEREA— Despite enjoying great success amidst an undefeated start to the season with the Denver Broncos, former Browns safety T.J. Ward admitted he didn't want to bolt from Berea.
“I never wanted to leave,” Ward said of Cleveland, in a conference call on Wednesday. “It's like a second home.”
After four seasons with the Browns, Ward became a free agent in 2014 and expressed a desire to return to the city where his NFL career began.
The Browns, however, had other ideas as free agency began.
“I didn’t feel like I was welcome back,” Ward said. “I wanted to come back, but you know how free agency works.”
Without interest from the Browns, Ward signed a four-year deal worth $22.5 million with the Denver Broncos in 2014 and, in looking back on the scenario, believed that the writing was on the wall when Browns fired then head coach Rob Chudzinski.
“We were going places with him, but unfortunately, the front office didn’t feel that way,” Ward said. “We went in a different direction completely, with me, as well.”
Of course, the Browns went on to hire Mike Pettine after Chudzinski was fired and the current Cleveland coach said he had no input on the decision to move on from Ward.
“The decision was made right when I got here,” Pettine said. “I know a lot was made of him and (Colts LB) D’Qwell (Jackson) as guys that have been here for a while.”
Though he never got to know Ward in Berea, Pettine’s been able to watch the safety in Denver and had nothing but positive things to say about him.
“He’s very much a complete safety,” Pettine said. “When you talk about guys that are free or strong, he can really do both. That makes it tough on an offense when it’s hard to identify what he’s playing because some teams that have a true free or strong, you can gather a lot more information pre-snap.”
Browns quarterback Josh McCown agreed with Pettine, saying that Ward’s talent is obvious and his versatility helps to make him amongst the best safeties in the league.
“He’s an excellent player. He can do it all,” McCown said. “He’s got all the skills that you want in a safety, and we’ll know where he’s at all times because he can be disruptive. He’s got the ability to cover, but he’s also good in the run game and tackling.”
He may miss Cleveland, but Ward isn’t going to shy away from the fact that Denver has been great for his development as a football player.
In fact, he feels he’s playing as well as he ever has and it’s all thanks to the Broncos.
“It’s definitely some of the best football I’ve played, but it all goes back to what we’re doing as a whole,” Ward said. “(The defense) allows me to make more plays, allows everybody else to make more plays. I think you’re seeing a lot of guys making plays because we can expect what’s coming, we know what’s coming. We’re very smart on the back end and the defense as a whole, really.”
Ward is happy too that he currently plays for an undefeated team, rather than his former squad that boasts a 2-3 record on the year.
“It definitely feels good to be 5-0,” Ward said. “Just happy to be that.”
Though things may be a bit better for him in Denver, Ward said he gave no less to the Browns than he currently gives to the Broncos and that his current attitude is no different than the one he carried in Cleveland.
“I’m not playing any harder for Denver. I’m the same player. I just come out to play every week and giving it my all,” Ward said. “I stay with a chip on my shoulder. You guys have seen me on a daily basis. Week to week, I have a chip.”
Ward will keep the chip on his shoulder when he heads back to Cleveland, but he admitted that he’d rather things remain cordial in his first return trip to FirstEnergy Stadium as a visitor.
“It’s definitely going to be some feelings there for sure,” Ward said. “I don’t really know what to expect, but I hope it’s a little bit of open arms.”
He may be hoping for a happy homecoming before the game, but when the whistle blows, he hopes to get booed right out of town.
“I’m going to get some boos,” Ward said, “when I start making plays.”
For all of your Browns news, updates and analysis from Berea, follow Hayden Grove on Twitter: @H_Grove.