Sullivan: Finally Healthy, Claiborne Is Meeting High Expectations

It's really about the expectations, there's no way around that. The blessing that was being the first defensive player taken in the 2012 NFL Draft has really been Morris Claiborne's curse. Well, that and injuries.

When healthy, Claiborne hasn't been all that bad these last four-plus years, starting all but four games he was on the field for. If he were, say, a third-round pick, there would scarcely be a mention of disappointment, or that other dirty word that really isn't warranted, but is used nonetheless.

"It was hard to see my name without the word 'bust' nearby," Claiborne said. "If I came in as a second- or third-round pick, no one would care."

That perception is changing, though, and quickly. Through three games, Claiborne has been the team's best cornerback, including a shutdown performance – we're talking island kind of stuff – against Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White this past Sunday against Chicago.

I spoke with him at length a few days before the regular-season opener for a feature story running in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine next week. And I came away convinced this was the breakout campaign everyone has been waiting for. Now, in 20 years of doing this, there still hasn't been that interview where an athlete told me, "Well, I think this year is going to be a train wreck. I'm in the worst shape of my life and haven't even glanced at the playbook. I just don't care."

That said, Claiborne told me about his offseason working out with local trainer Ronnie Braxton three or four times a day, starting at 5 a.m., along with fellow NFL cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Also, we talked about training camp. I asked him pointblank how could he shut down Dez Bryant, one of the best in the game, day after day in Oxnard and not have that translate into the regular season. That just doesn't make sense to me.

Well, Claiborne said, this year was different. First, he was healthy, which has been an issue since his rookie season.

[embeddedad0]Secondly, though, he was loving football again. After being benched following a mess of a game in Week 3 against the Rams in 2014, Claiborne hit an all-time low. He spent most of the next two years miserable.

"Man, after that game, that was the low. Oh, that was definitely the low point. So much stuff happened after that game, but it all started there. It seemed like it just started snowballing from there, stuff I never imagined ever happening. That was definitely, no question, the low point of my life.

"I definitely felt like I needed to deal with those emotions alone, far away from here, far away from the team. There were tears, there was a lot of praying, a whole lot of talking to God. I kept telling myself, again and again and again, don't break Morris, don't break Morris. I feel like a lot of people in that situation, they would have folded up from it. I accepted it, I fed off it and it ended up motivating me. Those were the darkest days of my life, though."

Claiborne must not be the world's greatest poker player because his facial expressions and body language are a telltale giveaway of how he's feeling inside. Seeing him these last two years, he was almost never smiling, looking almost depressed, walking with his head down. That's one of the reasons so many folks assumed he was going elsewhere this offseason, for a fresh start.

That, however, was never the case, with Claiborne telling me, "I felt like I owed it to the Jones family for doing what they did for me. They didn't have to give up that second-round draft pick to come up and take me where they did in the NFL Draft. I owe it to them to make that decision look like a smart one. They believed in me. Still do.

"I also feel like I owed it to the city to come back and be the player they were expecting me to be. Let's be honest, if you're a player, if you have the talents to succeed, you can succeed in any city, but there's no place I want to succeed more than here. This is where I want to be."

More than anything, and this was obvious at camp, Claiborne is happy. He's enjoying his world, smiling 24/7, talking and joking with teammates. And now he's finally playing like everyone envisioned when he was the first defensive player taken in the 2012 draft.

"I'm excited, I'm loving life," he said. "I was telling Brandon Carr a few weeks back, one of the toughest things of my life was going through that stretch in 2014 because I never smiled. I didn't feel like smiling. Some days I would wake up and, damn, my first thought was, 'I have to go to football practice.'

"Now I wake up and I'm so excited for football practice. I loved every day of camp. I woke up and I was so ready, so happy to start with breakfast, meetings, practice. I didn't even want a day off, just more football."

As for Claiborne's goals this season, well, they are quite simple, really: "Pro Bowl and Super Bowl MVP." Nothing wrong with confidence, right? Especially from a cornerback.

Sure, the fans and Rod Marinelli wouldn't mind a few interceptions sprinkled in as well, but for now, Claiborne is playing the best football of his career. And he's come a long way these last two years.

Check out Jeff Sullivan's column each week in *Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. Find out more at DallasCowboys.com/star. You can also follow Jeff on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at jsullivan@dallascowboys.net.*

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