- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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In his sixth season, Haynesworth finally lived up to the faith the Titans had in him when they selected him 15th in the 2002 draft. He was 20 at the time, young and somewhat immature coming out of the University of Tennessee. During his first five years in the pros, he either dominated or frustrated, another byproduct of his youth.
Few can block Haynesworth when he's at his best. Some can't live with him when he's at his worst. In 2006, when Haynesworth stomped on the helmetless head of prone Cowboys center Andre Gurode, the NFL suspended him for five games and coach Jeff Fisher wrestled with the thought of not allowing him back on the team.
It's a good thing Fisher was forgiving. This season, Haynesworth earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl with the most dominating campaign of any interior defensive lineman in the league. Despite missing three games with a torn hamstring, Haynesworth had six sacks and 40 tackles and earned the admiration of most coaches in the league.
With his free agency approaching in the next few weeks, the Titans face a franchise-wrenching decision. Unless they get a long-term contract in the next two weeks, they can keep him by placing the franchise tag on him at $6.64 million, 20 percent above last season's salary. That pleases and angers Haynesworth.
"I can understand if they franchise me to get a deal done to get more time to get something worked out like the Colts did with Dwight Freeney last year," Haynesworth said. "But if they tag me to keep me in Tennessee for just one more year, I could honestly say even if I'm having a great year next year, I won't try to work anything out with them."
New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs went through similar questions last offseason. They knew their franchises wanted them, but for varying reasons, their teams didn't want to work out long-term deals to keep them.
The cost of cornerbacks skyrocketed when the San Francisco 49ers signed Nate Clements to a 10-year, $100 million deal. The Bears didn't want to pay Briggs more than Brian Urlacher. Avoiding holdouts, both players worked out one-year franchise deals that allowed both to walk at the end of the season.
The uncertainty nags at Haynesworth as he gets ready for Sunday's Pro Bowl. The Tennessee has been his home for 10 years, and he wants to stay. He played three years in Knoxville and is all set for a seventh year in Nashville with the Titans.
"I'm not really going to hold out," Haynesworth said. "I'm not that kind of person. I need the work."
I've been here for six years. I've been in college here for three years. I've been in Tennessee for 10 years, and I'm only 26. That's a big portion of my life. Not trying to work out something long-term hurts your feelings a little bit.
If he's franchised, his game plan is to play out the season and refuse any long-term deal with the team.
"If they don't want me long-term, they can just stick the tag on me, but that's kinda tough," Haynesworth said. "I consider myself a Tennessee Titan. I've been here for six years. I've been in college here for three years. I've been in Tennessee for 10 years, and I'm only 26. That's a big portion of my life. Not trying to work out something long-term hurts your feelings a little bit."
Actually, it hurts a lot. Haynesworth has the reputation of being moody. In a more positively light, he gained the nickname "Painsworth" because he inflicts pain on opponents. But he's also inflicted pain on some teammates by being overaggressive with them in practice.
The Titans watched him play his best in the final year of a contract. The Titans didn't approach him about a long-term deal, and Haynesworth understood. The Gurode incident put his NFL career in jeopardy, not just his Titans' tenure. A five-game suspension for an on-field incident was unprecedented at the time.
His next blowout could put him on the verge of being kicked out of the league.
The 2007 season was one of major growth and maturity for Haynesworth. Around the middle of the season, he tore a hamstring. The injury was supposed to keep him out four to six weeks. Haynesworth came back in three because he felt the Titans needed him. They did, and they ended up making the playoffs.
"I still felt injured; I still feel injured right now," Haynesworth said of the hamstring. "I tore a big part of the hamstring. I went to a chiropractor for a week. He helped me out for a whole lot. They talk about Terrell Owens spending 18 hours getting treatment for his high ankle sprain, but I stayed in the training room a whole lot. It got weaker in the playoff game. I had no power. It just shut down. I tried to go as far as I possibly could."
In the past week or two, Haynesworth started to regain some of the strength in the hamstring. He's also had time to reflect on his 2007 season.
"Honestly, I didn't think it was going to go as well as it did," Haynesworth said. "I knew I had a good year because I was trying to stand up for what I did. I didn't think it would be this good of a year. It was a good year. I just had to step back and show people I was worth a first-round pick and to show that I could play football. I feel I only scratched the surface."
The interesting sidelight to this year's Pro Bowl is Haynesworth will have to play against Gurode. The two haven't had a chance to speak since the incident, but Haynesworth says he's sorry for what he did.
The two plan to meet and talk things out this week, and Gurode appears to be willing to forgive.
"I think the whole incident happened a year or so ago, it's over," Gurode said. "It was weird. I know there will be more questions about it. It happened. It's in the past."
Gurode has moved on, while Haynesworth has become a better player and a better person.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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