As LeBron James says, respect is earned in Cleveland. It's not given.
Over time, left tackle Joe Thomas and cornerback Joe Haden have not only turned into the Browns' best players and faces of the franchise, but they've also become revered among their NFL peers.
On Wednesday night, the NFL Network ranked Thomas as its 25th best player and Haden checked in at No. 23. They join safety Tashaun Gipson, who was ranked No. 67 earlier this month.
Thomas' name on the list goes as a foregone conclusion. The 30-year-old is the first offensive lineman in NFL history to reach the Pro Bowl in his first eight seasons. Further, Thomas still hasn't missed a snap in his entire career (7,917 straight). With his lunch-pail attitude, Thomas has embodied everything about the city Cleveland.
"From an NFL player standpoint and beyond that, he's just the total package, very professional, high character," coach Mike Pettine said. "Sometimes you have superstar players that are at the top of their game and there's a sense of entitlement or they don't practice as hard. He's the exact opposite of that."
Haden's elevation on the NFL Network's prestigious list is a testament to his expanded role in the Browns' defense. When Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil arrived in Cleveland, they brought their vaunted defensive scheme, which helped Darrelle Revis become one of the top cornerbacks in the league.
More than ever, Haden was asked to mark the best opposing receiver for the entire game, no matter where they lined up. The results of Haden and the secondary's success were visible. Cleveland led the league in opposing passer rating (74.1) and completion percentage (57.1). Haden picked off three passes in 2014, and the Browns finished with 21 total interceptions, good for second in the NFL.
"No challenge is too big for Joe," Pettine said. "He looks forward to it. He's not a guy that kind of shies away from that. I think there are times when it's certain coverages or situations where we're not putting him on maybe their No. 1. He wants it, but he's as good a team guy as I've been around. He'll say, 'Coach, wherever you need to use me.' To me, it's been kind of a hallmark of our style of defense, our system, to have that type of corner that you can lock down one receiver or one side of the field and be able to kind of allocate resources coverage wise elsewhere."
Added O'Neil: "I think he's the best cornerback in football."