Fourth-year Brown T.J. Ward wants to be the best safety in the league. Soon the Browns will have to decide just how good he is, and how much they are willing to pay him.
Baltimore has an 11-game winning streak against Cleveland?
Not really, T.J. Ward said.
"This team has only been 0-1 against them," the Browns strong safety said.
Ward was talking about a 14-6 loss at Baltimore on Sept. 15, the prequel to Sunday's Browns-Ravens game at Cleveland.
The 10 losses to Baltimore before that? Those have been completely different Browns teams, Ward said.
"Different owners. Different coaches. Different everything."
Funny he would say that. He is a perfect example of how every year in the NFL really is — or really can be — importantly different.
One of the differences in next year's Browns could be Ward's playing elsewhere. His contract expires after the Dec. 29 season finale at Pittsburgh or after the playoffs, on that off chance.
"It's definitely in my mind," Ward said of being in a contract year. "That's the name of this game."
If that sounds mercenary, no one on the team faults Ward for thinking about his livelihood. He is regarded as one of the toughest, hardest-working players on the team.
How well the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder covers the pass — or can, at his height — is a million-dollar question.
His chance to be set for life will come from his next contract. Not that he is Troy Polamalu, but as a reference point, the Steelers star signed a four-year contract extension in 2011 that was worth $36.5 million, with $10.5 million guaranteed.
Ward isn't having trouble making car payments as it is.
He signed a four-year, $4.03 million deal after the Browns drafted him at No. 38 overall in 2010 — $4 million is the equivalent of making $50,000 a year for 80 years.
Yet, Ward's concern about his next contract is understood. He is at the point of a competent young NFL player's career when one either attracts a big contract, or never does.
It's getting to be the time of year when coaches are careful what they say about players entering contract years. Agents do keep files.
Everything defensive coordinator Ray Horton has said to date suggests he honestly likes Ward, the only question being how much.
Yet, when asked specifically about Ward on Thursday, Horton gave a very unspecific response:
"At the halfway point," Horton said (remember, the question was about Ward), "I would say the secondary has been outstanding.
Horton's answer went along to include some statistics, including that the Browns have give up only three runs longer than 20 yards, which Horton called "amazing." But he never mentioned Ward.
When Tom Heckert spent a Round 2 pick on Ward, he said it was an easy choice, and that the next-best-rated player wasn't close. He said Ward was a fierce fighter, a "banger" who would set a tone against the run.
The head coach took that theme further than the coordinator did.
"I think he brings a real attitude to our defense," Rob Chudzinski said. "He's tough. He plays tough. He likes the physical part of the game.
"He's learned the system and really stepped into a leadership role on the back end ... he understands what to do, getting guys lined up and doing all of the things you would want a safety to do."
Ward goes further.
"I'm playing well against the run," he said, "but my goal is to be the best overall safety. I feel I have the ability to do that. That's what I'm working at daily."
Ward ranks second on the Browns with 65 tackles. He has returned two interceptions 57 yards. He has broken up five passes and has a sack.
He was an older rookie when he left Oregon, and he will turn 27 on Dec. 12. What kind of a player is he at this point? Serviceable. Good? Very good?
The market will speak to the answer soon enough.
Ward grew up in the San Francisco area, playing for a nationally ranked high school power. He stayed on the west coast for college. Only he knows whether he would like to get closer to home as a free agent — or get closer to winning. The Browns have been 5-11, 4-12 and 5-11 in his seasons here. They are 3-5 heading into the Baltimore rematch.
Ward hasn't dwelled on his contract. He talks the talk of a player invested in trying to help his team save a season.
"This week's game is very important for us," he said, "so we don't dig a hole."
"We'd love to get a win. To refresh."
After Sunday, the Browns head into their bye week. The difference between improving to 4-5 or dipping to 3-6 seems immense. Baltimore's 11-game win streak against the Browns casts plenty of doubt.
Ward has been on the team for seven of the 11 consecutive defeats,
"Winning the game would mean a lot, especially for the city," he said. "This division is very tight, very competitive. It's a very nasty division.
"It's a big rivalry. We don't like them. They don't like us. That's just the way it is."