By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
The Browns have more Pro Bowlers than wins heading into their season finale Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The NFL announced Friday night that the following five players were selected to represent the 4-11 Browns in the Pro Bowl: Wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Jordan Cameron, center Alex Mack and left offensive tackle Joe Thomas.
The Pro Bowl will be played at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 in Honolulu.
Gordon, Haden and Cameron are first-time honorees. Mack will make his second appearance in the Pro Bowl after receiving the nod as an injury replacement following the 2010 season. Thomas has earned a trip in each of his seven NFL seasons.
It’s the most Pro Bowlers the Browns have had since six players were selected at the end of the 2007 season, when the team went 10-6 with coach Rob Chudzinski serving as the offensive coordinator. The offense boasts four of the five players with Haden being the only defender selected.
The Browns also lead the AFC North in Pro Bowl selections this year, edging the Baltimore Ravens (8-7, four selections), Cincinnati Bengals (10-5, two selections) and Steelers (7-8, two selections).
Perhaps the high number of all-stars is a sign that the Browns aren’t as far away from a turnaround as most outsiders think. The Kansas City Chiefs had six Pro Bowlers last season when they went 2-14. They now have eight Pro Bowlers, an 11-4 record and a secure playoff berth. Browns fans have been dreaming of such a scenario since the expansion era began in 1999.
“It’s kind of special,” Thomas said. “I kind of see what happened with Kansas City last year where they’ve been building talent through the draft. They finally started getting recognition one year before they put those wins together. All we have to do is add a piece here and there and we could be sitting where Kansas City is.”
Added Mack: “Offensively, we’ve done a good job, and people have individually played really well. Unfortunately, we haven’t had quite the success that we want, but it is coming.”
Gordon and Haden were shown watching the announcement together on NFL Network. Both of them said they’ve made each other better and helped the other reach the Pro Bowl.
Despite being suspended the first two games this season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and playing with three quarterbacks, Gordon, 22, leads the league in receiving yards (a franchise-record 1,564), receiving yards per game (120.3) and yards per catch (19.6). He also has a team-high 80 catches and nine touchdowns.
“Honestly, the Pro Bowl was not on my mind at the beginning of it all,” Gordon said of redeeming himself after the suspension. “I just wanted to go out and make a name for myself and put to rest a lot of rumors and negativity surrounding my name, and I just wanted to go out there and try to play my heart out. And I guess the hard work has paid off.
“It’s almost a surreal event for me seeing exactly how this happened. I think of the turnaround, how things went for my life, but I’m definitely blessed and honored to have had this happen to me so early in my career. I can’t wait to get out there and show what I can do.”
Haden, 24, wanted to redeem himself after missing four games last season because he violated the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He is tied for the team lead with four interceptions, and according to STATS LLC, his 20 passes defensed are tied for second in the NFL.
“For sure, it was [an emotional night],” said Haden, who had a drawing of the Hawaiian Islands hanging in his locker all season to remind him of his goal. “I was just happy about being able to finally make it, finally get the thing checked off. I’m happy for this individual thing, but this isn’t the ultimate goal. This is amazing. I’m so blessed and humbled to be a part of the Pro Bowl, but I’d give this up any day. If we were playing in the Super Bowl and I couldn’t play in the Pro Bowl, it’d be perfect.”
Cameron, 25, has 75 catches and ranks second among NFL tight ends in receptions (75) and receiving yards (848). He joins Milt Morin (1969, 1972), Ozzie Newsome (1982, 1985-86) and Kellen Winslow Jr. (2008) as the only Browns tight ends selected to the Pro Bowl.
Mack, 28, joins John Morrow (1962, 1964) and Tom DeLeone (1980, 1981) as the only Browns centers to make multiple Pro Bowl trips. Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward are the most notable Browns players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents March 11. Ward was selected a Pro Bowl alternate.
With seven Pro Bowls on his resume, Thomas trails only Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Lou Groza, both of whom had nine, for the most by a Browns player. Thomas, 29, joins Richmond Webb (Miami Dolphins, 1991-97) as the only NFL offensive linemen to be named to the Pro Bowl in each of their first seven seasons since 1970.
Fans, coaches and players selected the participants for the Pro Bowl, which will use a new format in 2014. Instead of the AFC playing the NFC, all of the players selected will be drafted from a pool at 8 p.m. Jan. 22 with Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders serving as alumni team captains.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.