Talk about a rollercoaster of emotions… that is the life of Cleveland Browns fans and players this week.
The euphoria of a playoff-clinching victory over the Steelers lifted the mood of even the most pessimistic follower.
But it all came crashing down Tuesday with reports of five positive Covid-19 tests.
We were informed this morning that Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players have tested positive for COVID-19.
Our contingency planning calls for Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as the acting Head Coach. pic.twitter.com/Mhh9Zt1e4d
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 5, 2021
Cleveland’s front office reported head coach Kevin Stefanski and two assistants are in isolation.
Covid will also sideline left guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver Khadarel Hodge.
Browns facilities closed for the fifth time in ten days as contact tracing proceeded.
If there is good news, it is that close contacts will be inferred from Monday practices and sessions.
That means any additional coaches or players cited can return to play Sunday, as long as they test negative.
But with the number of players the head coach comes in contact with in practice, the team and fans will sweat out the rest of this week’s test results.
Who Replaces the Coaches?
Along with Stefanski, assistant tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard will miss Cleveland’s first playoff game in 18 years.
Their absence might not be missed much during the week as virtual coaching and meetings have become the norm.
The exception would be any field practices the team manages to get in before Sunday.
On game day, special teams coordinator Mike Preifer will assume head coaching activities.
The @Browns ruled out Head Coach Kevin Stefanski today with #COVID19. I am hoping he handed Mike Priefer the following playbook for the playoff game vs the #Steelers. pic.twitter.com/eslHwdIMW6
— Ryan Wolfe (@ryanewolfe) January 5, 2021
Preifer has one game of head coaching experience, filling in for the Vikings’ Mike Zimmer in 2017.
But the offensive game-calling will rest with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
That should assure some continuity as Van Pelt and Stefanski work closely on the game plans.
Van Pelt and defensive coordinator Joe Woods have not tested positive for the virus this year.
Cleveland resorted to virtual practices three days last week, getting together on the field just once.
Who Replaces The Players?
Joel Bitonio is the longest-tenured Cleveland Brown, suffering through 1-31 along the way.
After the team’s victory Sunday, Stefanski handed Bitonio a game ball and said, “You’re going to the playoffs.”
Missing the game is personally devastating for Bitonio, but it is not much easier for the Browns offense.
The left guard is as important a cog in the Browns’ running game as anyone else.
Michael Dunn‘s first regular NFL season gets interesting as he gets the call to make his first start in a playoff game.
#Browns will now likely be down to Michael Dunn at left guard. With Bitonio out, Chris’s Hubbard on the IR, and Nick Harris dealing with an injury, the #Browns don’t ha e much left. Dunn has been up and down off of the practice squad this year.
— clebrownsnetwork (@clebrownsig) January 5, 2021
Dunn’s NFL career consists of three years of practice squad duties with five teams before the Browns signed him earlier this season.
Khadarel Hodge played important minutes after Donovan Peoples-Jones went out with a concussion against Pittsburgh.
Marvin Hall is the likely candidate to move into the WR-4 slot behind Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and Peoples-Jones.
Should Cleveland Ask the NFL To Delay the Game?
The NFL will not delay a playoff game unless a team has an active outbreak that might infect the other team.
Testing last week showed the infected players and coaches had three different strains of the virus.
That led the league to declare the positive tests were community-acquired and not an outbreak in the facility.
So far, no Pittsburgh players tested positive since the last matchup.
Should multiple strains be detected again, the league will likely repeat its declaration of a week ago.
#NFL spokesman on Sunday night's #Browns–#Steelers wild-card game, given today's COVID-19 news out of Cleveland: "No change to the game's status."
— Nate Ulrich (@ByNateUlrich) January 5, 2021
That means the game will be played as scheduled regardless of how missing players might affect Cleveland’s game plan.
Everything changes if the Steelers are equally affected by Covid or if the league believes the Browns have an outbreak.
But plans are to delay the game until Friday, which might not help the Browns if no players are deemed close contacts after today.
Delaying the game would help the Steelers, however, as Joe Haden and Eric Ebron could be activated next week.
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