Last week, Cleveland won its season finale against Pittsburgh and qualified for the playoffs despite missing six players and multiple assistant coaches because of coronavirus protocols. This week, while preparing for the franchise’s most important game in almost two decades, the Browns are quarantining, hoping their practice facility can open again soon and fretting the possibility that the diagnosis could get worse.
At a time when it feels as if patience and persistence are the only tools available, the Browns seemed an ideal, reassuring story. At last, after all the laughs at their expense, after all the coaching changes and front-office shake-ups, after an endless search for a reliable quarterback and sensible plan, they have some hope. And their hope may have some stamina. They have turned into a feel-good story, and who doesn’t want to feel something besides angst? But the coronavirus seems determined to bring their new beginning to an abrupt end.
The Browns’ outbreak might be an omen for the NFL. With a surge in cases throughout the nation, with a new coronavirus strain causing concern, with owners and players resisting even the most basic bubble concepts, the NFL should recognize the lesson in this situation: The league, like everyone else, is still at the mercy of covid-19. There’s nowhere to hide. You can preach protocols and discipline, but best practices don’t come with the promise of immunity.
All season, the NFL’s reported cases have been remarkably low. In its latest joint release, the league and players revealed 70 confirmed positive tests (34 players, 36 other team personnel) last week. It’s up from 58 the previous week. But the pool is enormous: 40,709 tests were given to a total of 6,702 players and team personnel. It’s important to keep the microscopic percentage in mind. But the problem isn’t the raw numbers for an enormous sport; it’s how a few cases can start a fire on individual teams.
Because the NFL has fared surprisingly well, teams with outbreaks have been stigmatized. Certainly, reports of sloppiness and negligence have surfaced. But plenty of teams have stuck to the protocols and still been unable to contain the virus for stretches. It’s an inevitability of the pandemic, and it’s a constant source of apprehension.
On Sunday, Pittsburgh will host the rival Browns in the first round. The Steelers are surely relieved they aren’t the shorthanded team. But they live in fear of an ill-timed outbreak.
“Every morning at 6 a.m., I am looking at my phone, waiting for verification of the previous day’s test results,” Coach Mike Tomlin said. “Are we in the clear, or are we not? And what necessary adjustments need to be made? What investigations, if any, need to be made? That has been our life — not only ours here in Pittsburgh but ours collectively as members of the National Football League — since July.
“We don’t need a daily reminder, because we have daily continual reminders of how fragile these circumstances are.”
Day by day, test by test, the NFL managed to get through the regular season on time, needing only to delay games and tweak schedules on occasion to get to the finish line. It played all 256 games. There were close calls, low moments and embarrassing predicaments, such as Denver having to play without a quarterback. But the NFL made it. Like the 14 franchises that earned postseason berths, the league itself can boast about getting to the playoffs.
But you know how sports work in America: The postseason means the most. Everything is magnified now. If the NFL is forced to adjust this time, it must do so without the wiggle room of a 17-week slate. Super Bowl LV is scheduled to be played in a month.
In the regular season, the NFL could maintain its next-man-up mentality and plow ahead. But now the decisions will be tougher. Maybe the worst of the Browns’ struggles are over, and most people outside Cleveland won’t care that they had to play without Stefanski and a few others. Or maybe the spread will continue, and their roster will be so decimated the NFL will have to postpone the game, altering the entire postseason schedule.
The NFL has been adamant about only adjusting for compelling medical reasons. It has tried to leave competitive balance out of the decision-making process. But what happens if Commissioner Roger Goodell is faced with a scenario in which one of the sport’s marquee quarterbacks tests positive? What happens if Kansas City or Green Bay comes off the bye week and experiences a Browns-like predicament? Would the NFL really let the coronavirus rob the playoffs of luster? Would the league really let it decide the champion? And if it changed the way it deals with covid-19 misfortune so late in the game, would the league be able to live with critics screaming favoritism?
It’s playoff time, and the Browns are in for the first time since LeBron James was a high school senior. If we weren’t so accustomed to watching the Browns suffer, the conversation would go beyond “Poor Cleveland!” this week. Sadly, the Browns might be too common a victim to inspire deeper conversation. This kind of hard luck is outrageous, even for them, but it won’t stop the NFL train.
I keep watching the locker room video of Stefanski’s postgame speech Sunday. It was a masked and muted celebration compared with normal times. But it was stirring still. Stefanski threw a game ball to Bitonio and asked the veteran to speak. As Bitonio talked through his face covering, you could feel his emotion as he repeated his appreciation for finally being on a good team.
Now, though, the postgame scene feels haunting. At the start, Stefanski asked his players a question.
“Was the goal ever just to go to the playoffs?” he said.
“No!” the players screamed. “No, sir!”
“You got more in ya?” Stefanski wondered.
“Yes, sir!” the players replied.
It’s doubtful the Browns have enough in them to overcome what the coronavirus has done. If so, that’s a shame. After 18 desolate years, they exhaled, only to remember this is a highly contagious time.