CLEVELAND - In a few days Browns safety T.J. Ward will head home to begin the offseason.
When Ward begins his conditioning program in a few months, there's a chance he might be residing in another NFL city.
All the tea leaves indicate that Ward will play his final game in the orange and brown Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The four-year contract he signed in his rookie year of 2010 will end in February, which will pave the way for his entry into the free-agent market.
Players that are valued by organizations usually sign new contracts before the final year of their old contract or no later than midway through that season. So far the two sides seem as far apart as opposing aisles in the U.S. Congress.
There's no way Ward can go into Sunday's game not thinking that it might be his final appearance with the Browns.
"You can't block that out," Ward said. "I've spent four years here and have given a lot to this team, and they've given a lot to me. I try to stay focused on the task."
Ward and center Alex Mack are the two biggest names on the roster that could be free agents in March. The only other starter in that situation is guard Shawn Lauvao, who likely won't be back.
Ward ruffled some feathers a few weeks ago with critical comments after another disappointing loss. It came off as if Ward was singling out the offense for criticism, but he pointed out the next day that he included all phases of the team in his remarks.
His words, alone, wouldn't seem to be the reason for a possible departure. On the field he's having arguably the best season of his four-year career. He's second on the defense in tackles with 121 and has intercepted a pair of passes.
Yet management has been noticeably quiet in its dealings with Ward and Mack. By now Ward should know that he'll be a free agent, and he should be excited.
"It is an opportunity, and an opportunity I haven't had," Ward said. "It's exciting, kind of, but who knows. I could be franchised. Right now I'm just looking forward to Pittsburgh this week."
Parting ways with the Browns might be Ward's best option in 2014. He's in his prime and is close to having a rare injury-free season. The team that lands Ward next season will get an instant starter that can play the deep secondary or in the box as a linebacker, which was seen when he took on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski is always careful never to say anything that would anger the front office when asked personnel questions. Reading between the lines, it would appear that Chudzinski would like to see Ward and Mack return.
"Those guys have played at a high level," Chudzinski said. "I love those guys. We're focused on Pittsburgh right now. All those things we'll talk about when the season is over."
Ward is clearly tired of losing. Taking advantage of the open market would be a chance for him to find a winner in the same way kicker Phil Dawson left after last season and signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
"Anything can happen," Ward said. "I'm not worried about all that other stuff. I think we have the pieces here to win. That's what I'm looking forward to."