The win put the Browns in second place, just one game behind the Ravens, and set the team up for a final four-game sprint to clinch a second-consecutive playoff berth.
Then COVID-19 struck.
The Browns have placed 14 players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list in just the past two days, along with head coach Kevin Stefanski and acting running backs coach Ryan Cordell. They join a trio of players — tight end David Njoku, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and punter Jamie Gillan - who are still on the list from last week.
This all comes as the Browns are preparing to host the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
With everything going on, and with the understanding that the situation can change, let’s break down just where everything currently stands.
Stefanski is vaccinated and just received a booster shot on Tuesday, according to the Browns, so he will need to negative tests 24 hours apart to be able to coach against the Raiders.
Cordell is further down the coaching list, so the Browns apparently did not feel the need to release his vaccination status. But if he is vaccinated, Cordell will also have to post two negative tests 24 hours apart to be back on the sidelines this Saturday.
If Stefanski can’t go, the team will turn to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer as acting head coach and have offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt call the plays on offense.
That is a pairing that served the Browns well last season when Stefanski missed the Wild Card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That experience will be beneficial this time around, Priefer said on Wednesday (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I think anytime you are in this situation, you have been through it before and you know what worked before. You always learn from the good and the bad. Because we are so organized here, we have a plan for pretty much everything. We just try to follow that blueprint and prepare for this game as best we can with the time that we have. We have played a lot of football this year so far so our guys know how to play the game. We know our game plans are going to be geared to beat the Las Vegas Raiders. The quicker our guys pick this up, the better off we are going to be, and utilize the time between now and Saturday afternoon. We have plenty of time to get ready, and we will be ready.”
In addition to the players from last week, the Browns are currently without the following players from the active roster:
- Quarterback Baker Mayfield
- Guard Drew Forbes
- Tight end Austin Hooper
- Wide receiver Jarvis Landry
- Right guard Wyatt Teller
- Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.
- Defensive end Takkarist McKinley
- Cornerback Troy Hill
- Safety John Johnson III
- Defensive tackle Malik McDowell
- Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo
That is seven starters — including the quarterback and two members of the offensive line — along with four backups.
The Browns also lost some potential replacements from the practice squad as safety Nate Meadors, wide receiver JoJo Natson, and tight end Ross Travis are also on the list.
So what are the Browns planning to do?
Cleveland’s 53-man roster currently stands at 42 players, so there will be numerous call-ups from the practice squad once the dust settles at the end of the week and players are ruled out.
Case Keenum will get his second start of the season if Mayfield is out, and Stefanski has said that Blake Hance and Michael Dunn will fill in for Wills and Teller, respectively.
The Browns signed wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley to the active roster from the practice squad on Wednesday, and added wide receiver Alexander Hollins to the practice squad. They will be in line to earn the “next man up” badge if Landry and Natson remain out.
Tight end will be trickier as Njoku is still on the list and tight end Harrison Bryant is dealing with a high ankle sprain.
Defensively, the Browns have some depth at defensive end — namely Porter Gustin and Joe Jackson - to deal with the loss of McKinley, and the defensive tackle position is such a mess already that losing McDowell might not be that noticeable.
The loss of Hill and Johnson might be manageable if cornerback Greg Newsome II, missed last week’s game with a concussion, and safety Ronnie Harrison Jr., who is dealing with an ankle injury, can play. If not, well, let’s not think about that right now.
If any of the players on the list are vaccinated and tested positive, they can return once they are able to produce two negative tests 24 hours apart by Friday at 4 p.m. If any of the players are unvaccinated and tested positive, they will be out for a minimum of 10 days.
What about practice?
The Browns were unable to practice on Tuesday following the first wave of players landing on the COVID-19 list, and planned separate walkthroughs on Wednesday for each of the team’s three units — offense, defense and special teams.
Thursday is the last day of practice for the week, and it would not come as a surprise if the team went through the separate walkthrough strategy once again.
While not ideal, it is a situation the Browns have been through before, and they will look to make the best of the situation, linebacker Malcolm Smith said on Wednesday (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“We had a chance to walkthrough outside so we are alright. At this point in the season – I do not even know what week it is – it is a lot less physical than you might think. You need the looks, you need to see what things are happening and you need to see the timing of things, and a lot of times you do not even get that at this point in the season full speed because games come up so quickly. As long as we get to do something and we are communicating, even if we are doing it on Zoom, it is better than last minute. Hopefully, we do not have anything pop up the night before the game, but we are in that position now to prepare everybody for that happening.”
What about Saturday’s game?
While there have been calls from Browns fans to postpone the game, at this time the NFL has no plans to do so, as NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told cleveland.com.
A postponement might have occurred last season, but the league changed the rules this offseason with the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine and warned teams that if they could not keep their house in order there would be consequences.
Per the league’s memo, the NFL will make every effort to play the full schedule on time, and has no intentions of postponing games. Teams have a 16-man practice squad with plenty of roster flexibility for major outbreaks such as this.
The highlights of the news regulations, per cleveland.com, are:
Every club is obligated to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place. A failure to do so is deemed conduct detrimental. There is no right to postpone a game. Postponements will only occur if required by government authorities, medical experts, or at the Commissioner’s discretion.
In light of the substantial roster flexibility in place for the 2021 season, absent medical considerations or government directives, games will not be postponed or rescheduled simply to avoid roster issues caused by injury or illness affecting multiple players, even within a position group.
So, basically, the league is not going to do the Browns, or another team, any favors this year and the Browns are adjusting accordingly, Stefanski said on Wednesday (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“You have Plan A, and you have Plan B, and it is a good thing those whiteboards can be erased. Listen, I said it yesterday, we have guys on this roster who we trust. We have guys on this roster who we have been developing, who are in the meetings and are diligent about preparation. If we are calling on them this week, they will be ready, that is what they do. That is their job. That is what we have to do this week. Really, like I mentioned before, it is just adjusting hour by hour here.”
It is not the best situation, but no one is going to be crying for the Browns, which the coaches and players certainly know.
The damage is done, now all they can do is hit the field on Saturday and see if they can find a way to get past the Raiders.