CHICAGO —For the first time in seven years, the Browns took the field without Joe Haden as a member of the team Thursday night for their preseason finale against the Bears.
Sashi Brown said parting ways with the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback was the most difficult decision he's made since becoming the team's executive vice president of football operations early last year.
Brown, who described Haden as "the consummate professional" and outlined Wednesday morning's transaction, made clear the choice to release the veteran weighed on him.
"He's been here so long, he means so much to the organization and he's been such a great player for a long time," Brown said.
"You have a personal relationship with these guys. That's a part of it, but these decisions are the ones that need to be made and, for us, there will be many more to come but this was for sure the most difficult I've had to make."
Since he was drafted seventh overall in 2010, Haden emerged as a cornerstone in Cleveland both on and off the field. Those were dynamics neither lost on Brown nor the team's front office in recent weeks.
While Brown kept private the content of their conversations, he met with Haden "several times throughout process" before exchanging goodbyes in his office early Wednesday.
"These decisions are hard because there's arguments on both sides for making them, but we wanted to do the right thing by the organization and that's what we did," Brown said.
"We did make our best effort to find something that would work for both sides," he added. "We weren't able to do that, so we made the decision" to release Haden.
Haden amassed 19 interceptions and 89 pass breakups in Cleveland and battled injuries the past two seasons. Amid a 1-15 campaign in 2016, Haden was a captain and veteran presence in a youth-laden locker room, playing through two groin injuries in an effort to lead by example.
Haden, who signed a three-year contract with the Steelers later Wednesday, will return to Cleveland on Sept. 10, in the season opener for both teams.
Brown shrugged off Haden's move to a divisional rival, saying he'll be remembered as one of the team's all-time best players.
"For us, we have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a man and a player and what he meant to this franchise and he'll be one of the greats in the history of the Browns," he said.
"He'll always be a Cleveland Brown no matter what stripes he's donning next Sunday."