CLEVELAND- The joy, euphoria, monkey-off-our-back feeling is starting to subside in Cleveland today as head coach Kevin Stefanski, all-pro lineman Joel Bitonio and Wide Receiver Khardarel Hodge test positive for COVID-19.
Those positive tests come with two others in tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard.
Over the past two weeks, that makes six total positive cases for the Browns and several close contacts, which put wide receivers, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Khardarel Hodge, Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie linebacker Jordan Philips out of the Jets game.
The failure of stopping the spread of the virus has not been for lack of trying. The Browns have had intensive measures in place from the start of this funky season. With the rise of cases in team facilities, the NFL announced in November that they would be putting teams through intensive protocols.
NFL.com sent a statement that all players and coaches must have a negative test from the previous day’s testing before entering the facility, in addition to regular daily PCR testing, all meetings being held virtually unless they can be held outdoors or indoors with a pre-approved plan and for facemasks being worn at all times at the facility, including on the practice field by all personnel. All meals must be served in a grab and go style to prevent people from congregating in meal rooms. Locker room use is strongly discouraged on non-game days.
These were all protocols that the Browns had already been following; Stefanski even commented on this.
“We are not having any of those meetings in-house anymore or out on the field; guys are wearing the Oakley face shields and masks, obviously. For us, it is very much business as usual. We do not have any meals [together] in the building anymore,” Stefanski said. “The guys grab-and-go all of their meals, so you are not sharing meals with each other. There is a time limit that they spend in the locker room. It gets in and gets out. It is very unfortunate when you are talking about a team sport that you can’t spend a lot of time with your team.”
Stefanski has been very interactive with head team physician Dr. James Voos and senior vice president of player health and development Joe Sheehan in ensuring that they implemented these processes early.
“When you are in the intensive protocols, you can’t hang out together outside of this building,” Stefanski said. “For us, we just try to educate everybody on the risks that are involved when you are talking about having anyone in your home or wherever when you leave this building, once you leave this building, you have to make smart decisions. We talk a lot about that.”
This goes as far back as training camp. Players were conducting meetings strictly online and were splitting into orange and brown workout groups to regulate further preventive measures.
Yet, the Browns find themselves in an unthinkable spot and that’s not the playoffs. So what now?
Browns fans feel cheated today.
For the first time in 18 years, they have had a winning season, something for the city to finally take pride in. Now, their chances seem bleak and they are calling on the NFL to intervene.
The NFL came out publicly and said that as of now, there will be no change in the schedule for the wildcard round. The league is still going through contact tracing protocols to make sure that the spread is contained. But suppose Browns fans were bringing into question the NFL’s protocols last week. In that case, there is reason to believe that the most significant game in 18 years can and would bring questioning as well.
In Week 12, the Ravens-Steelers game was pushed back due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 around Baltimore’s facility. The spread saw 11 positive cases, including key pieces such as star quarterback Lamar Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews and defensive end Mathew Judon. Along with that, 20 close contacts had to be placed on the covid reserve list.
This forced the NFL to pivot and push the game, which came under scrutiny. That same week, the Broncos had to play the Saints without a quarterback after placing them on the covid reserve list.
In an interview with Mike Tirico, Roger Goodell commented on the difference in the two situations between both teams.
“Our decisions are based on medical issues and that being our priority.” Goodell said, “We told all the clubs that at the beginning of the year and they understand that absent a medical issue we are going to play the games.”
Fans can say what they want, but the NFL has been consistent in this approach. The Broncos-Ravens debate really has no traction. The Ravens had 11 positive tests, whereas the Broncos players appeared on the close contact list.
Now, what does this mean for the Browns?
Well, it is evident that the NFL is unconcerned with competitive disadvantages with COVID-19. Still, with the increase in POSITIVE COVID-19 cases in the Browns facility and it spanning through multiple weeks, there is a chance that the NFL pushes the game back.
As of right now, the NFL believes that the Browns have run such a tight ship that they will not find any further harm in continuing the game. However, if we see one or two more cases come to pass, this will put the NFL in a very tough spot.
Considering this is not a new spread and has gone on for multiple weeks any new positive submissions will seemingly force the NFL’s hand to stay consistent with their protocols.
The competitive imbalance mindset of the NFL may change as well. The long-term effects of their decisions now are crucial to their ratings. Let’s play a hypothetical here: Say the NFL decides to play this game and weeks later, in an AFC championship game, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes tests positive, but contact tracing deems that the spread stops at Mahomes. Obviously, without Mahomes, the Chiefs are at a considerable disadvantage and the NFL is at a massive disadvantage with ratings. But consistency in a global pandemic is huge.
Browns fans should keep hope that this game will get pushed. The implications for the NFL go well beyond just the Browns.