The Browns are Dealt a Big Blow as Stefanski, Others are Sidelined with COVID-19 For Sunday's Playoff Game
The Cleveland Browns are battling a coronavirus outbreak heading into their first playoff game in 18 years. The team will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski along with several other key members of the coaching staff who tested positive for COVID-19. Guard Joel Bitonio and receiver KhaDarel Hodge also tested positive Tuesday.
WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says it's a big blow to a team that just snapped the longest postseason drought in the NFL.
Losing Stefanski, and his right-hand man
Pluto says the Browns without Stefanski Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers is significant. The likely NFL Coach of the Year front-runner has called plays for the team all season. That job will now go to quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who Pluto says has been in this position before. Van Pelt previously served as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills.
The job of acting head coach will go to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, an NFL coaching veteran. Priefer was the special teams coach with the Minnesota Vikings from 2011-18 and has worked for a number of other teams. Pluto says Priefer spent one game as interim head coach with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, when he was on the same staff with Stefanski.
Bill Callahan's influence
Pluto says much of the credit for helping to fix some of the Browns offensive woes goes to one of Stefanski's top assistants, Bill Callahan, who the team will also be without after he tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
Callahan was the team's offensive line coach who led the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl when he was head coach for the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Pluto says Callahan was the first assistant Stefanski hired, and their offices are right next door to each other in Berea.
"He is like the wise man in the room with Kevin Stefanski," Pluto said.
Pluto says COVID-19 has created problems for most teams in the NFL this season, and this outbreak hits at the worst time for the Browns.
"Who you think you're going to have on the field on Monday isn't necessarily there on the following Sunday," Pluto said.
In addition to Stefanski, defensive backs coach Jeff Howard and tight ends coach Drew Petzing were the others to test positive Tuesday. And during last week's regular season finale, the Browns had to play without six starters because of COVID-19 protocols.
Pluto says the virus has had lasting effects, especially for star pass rusher Myles Garrett, who missed two games after contracting the virus in November.
"Since he's come back, he's not been the same player. He just doesn't have the same stamina. The fatigue can linger on for three weeks, six weeks, two months until you're really back to yourself, and I think he's fighting that," he said.
The Browns also lost their other top pass rusher, Olivier Vernon, who is out for the playoffs after rupturing his Achilles tendon against the Steelers this past Sunday.
Postpone the game?
Just two other NFL games have been rescheduled or postponed because of the pandemic this season. The teams affected were the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, who each were set to play the Steelers.
But Pluto says it's unlikely the Browns-Steelers matchup will be delayed.
"If it became a situation like at one point, [when] Baltimore had 23 players test positive, and they moved that game back several days. That would be the only thing that could possibly do it," Pluto said.
As for the matchup, the rivalry hasn't been much of one in recent years. The Browns are 2-20 playing in Pittsburgh since 1999, with their last victory there in 2003.
Pluto says fans can hope the Steelers have a bad game. "Once in a while, Ben Roethlisberger has a game where he throws a couple of interceptions. That's the kind of thing [the Browns] need," Pluto said.
The Steelers quarterback Roethlisberger has dominated the Browns over the years with a 23-2-1 record and is 33-8 at home against the entire AFC North.
Baker Mayfield's rise
While the Steelers quarterback is entering the twilight of his career, Cleveland's young quarterback Baker Mayfield is on the rise in his third season. This was seen as a make-or-break year for Mayfield, who has proven he can win games for the Browns.
"His last eight games, he's played extremely well. That was my hope when the year began that the second half of the season, that he would finally grab the offense and this would work," Pluto said.
"Now you look at this guy, and he is a success and this team is a success. Pittsburgh's at home. They are supposed to win, and they're the better team. But why not us?" Pluto said.