In the summer of 2019, the Browns were the most hyped team in football, landing on the preseason covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine and garnering an entire week of coverage on this very website. Browns fans packed training camp simply to see the team practice in July. I was there and chuckled as I watched a few national media members—who hadn’t spent a lot of time at previous Browns camps—pepper team employees and players with questions about whether the crowd was bigger or different that year because of the squad’s rising fortunes. The Browns seemed almost puzzled by the questions. No, it wasn’t different, because Browns fans were always there. They packed training camp when there was no hope, when the coach was simply hired to be fired, long before Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Myles Garrett. They packed training camps when there was nothing to see. Browns fans were there because that’s what they do.
I thought about those Browns fans—the ones who waited around in July to see Brandon Weeden—after they got their reward on Sunday, the team’s first playoff berth in 18 years. Less than 48 hours later, Kevin Stefanski, the first-year coach and the man most responsible for the Browns’ five-win improvement this season, tested positive for COVID-19, meaning he will miss Sunday’s wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Joel Bitonio, the longest-tenured Brown, who has seen 0-16 and 1-15, but never the playoffs, also tested positive. As Zac Jackson, who covers the team for The Athletic, put it: “When something is a Holy Shit Moment by Browns standards, it is a true Holy Shit Moment.” For context as to what Stefanski and Bitonio mean to the team, here was the scene after Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh:
Now, the Browns enter their biggest week of practice since before LeBron James played professional basketball without Stefanski and four other offensive coaches due to COVID-19 protocols. Two weeks ago, the Browns lost to the New York Jets, in large part because they were without almost every wide receiver on the depth chart, but perhaps more importantly, they were without two starting offensive linemen. The Browns created nothing in the running game with their makeshift line and forced Mayfield to pass 53 times with no receiver talent on the field. In September, when Roger Goodell told Peter King, “There will be potential competitive inequities that will be required this season because of the virus,” this is the type of thing he was talking about. Once the NFL made the decision to postpone games only for medical reasons—and not competitive ones—an unfair playoff game was always a possibility. Now it’s a reality.
The playoffs are picking up in 2021 where the 2020 season left off in 2020: with COVID-19 impacting everything. Many of these effects have been abstract: We don’t know, for instance, how much it hurts a team to conduct its business virtually a few days during the week when unable to meet in person at its practice facility, or who benefits when a game has been delayed. There’s just not enough of a sample size. Mostly, this season, the football on the field has simply been football as we usually know it. The Wall Street Journal reported that teams are missing fewer tackles this season and scoring more points than ever despite practicing less and having had one of the shortest training camps in league history. The on-field product hasn’t changed dramatically, and people around the sport tell me a lot of the changes brought about by COVID-19—position-group meetings over Zoom or remote predraft discussions with prospects—will likely remain. But the Browns’ situation is not abstract: It is a huge competitive blow to a team that is finally out of the football wilderness. The Cleveland Browns being shorthanded against the Steelers on Sunday is far down the list of worldwide problems in the past year, but from a purely football standpoint, it is a massive bummer. Stefanski led them to the doorstep but can’t go inside. Bitonio’s playoff drought will continue. This stinks.
Defensive backs coach Jeff Howard and tight ends coach Drew Petzing also tested positive for the virus this week, creating huge holes on the coaching staff. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will take over Stefanski’s head-coaching duties, while offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call offensive plays. Stefanski can work remotely on Zoom during the week but not during the game. Contact tracing is ongoing, and anyone who is classified as having been a close contact to the Browns players and coaches on the COVID-19 list would have to miss five days from their last exposure. Those who tested positive are out 10 days, so even if the NFL wanted to push the game back a day to Monday, that wouldn’t be enough time to reinstate Stefanski, Bitonio, or any of the Browns who are out in this wave of positives.
This does not mean the Browns are doomed to lose. They’ve performed one miracle already this year by making the playoffs. But breaking in a new head coach and a reshuffled coaching staff in the franchise’s most important game since it resumed play in 1999 means the deck is stacked against them. Stefanski won 11 games in his first season—seven Browns coaches won fewer in their entire tenure. The Browns need him on the sideline. They’ve lost 17 straight games in Pittsburgh and also lost to the Steelers in their last playoff appearance after the 2002 season.
The NFL was always walking a tightrope with COVID-19. All 256 games were played, even if some of them were scheduled on Tuesdays and Wednesdays after multiple delays. But the upcoming Browns-Steelers wild-card matchup may present the league with the most glaring competitive inequity it’s faced thus far. This was, in some ways, inevitable, when you consider how many games have already been affected and the fact that the NFL will play 13 playoff games this month and next. But for the Browns, this is a cruel way to start the most hopeful January they’ve had in two decades.