Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will miss the “dad jokes” coach Kevin Stefanski tells over the headset to lessen the tension during games.
“The biggest thing I would say is he likes to have fun,” Van Pelt said Thursday. “He keeps it light from the beginning to the end. He pokes fun at himself throughout the course of the game.”
The absence of the father figure with the “calming” sideline demeanor will also be felt.
“It’s tough when you lose your leader,” Van Pelt said. “But at some point, it’s like being a parent and sending your kid to college. Hopefully you’ve done enough to get him ready for what’s ahead, and I think that’s kind of the mindset.”
Stefanski won’t be in Pittsburgh on Sunday night when the Browns face the Steelers in the wild card round of the playoffs after testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. He led the Browns to an 11-5 record in his first season but will miss the team’s first playoff game since 2002.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as acting head coach, and Van Pelt will call plays for the first time since 2009 with the Bills.
“I’m both honored and humbled to have this opportunity, but make no mistake, this is Kevin’s team,” Priefer said. “He’s laid the foundation of a smart, tough, accountable, resilient team.
“And I’ll do whatever’s asked of me to help get the Browns a win on Sunday night. I do love this city. And our fans deserve our best effort, and that’s what we plan on giving them on Sunday.”
Priefer will have final say on when to go for it on fourth down, take timeouts and challenge calls. He’s met with the organization’s experts in game management and will follow a guiding principle for every decision.
“I’m going to try to do exactly what Kevin would want to have happen in those situations,” he said.
Stefanski picked Priefer to run the show because he has familiarity with the entire roster in his special teams role and was an interim coach for one game in 2016 with the Vikings. The selection also allows defensive coordinator Joe Woods and Van Pelt to keep their focus on their units.
Priefer was born in Cleveland, and his dad, Chuck, was a coach at Padua High School before moving to college and the NFL. Mike Priefer is a graduate of the Naval Academy and said last year he’d like to be a head coach. He’ll continue to call the special teams plays Sunday.
Stefanski will run the virtual meetings all week, but Priefer will be in charge during practices — if the Browns have one this week after they were canceled Wednesday and Thursday due to COVID issues — and the game.
“Everybody’s different, but I’m going to try to be an extension of Kevin,” he said. “He’s done a great job with the situational football. We’ve learned a lot of football over the years together, talked situational football throughout the year, talked about it during the week and even on gameday.”
The big decisions will belong to Priefer, and the 60 or so offensive play calls will be Van Pelt’s responsibility. He’ll get collaboration, then choose from the menu Stefanski and the staff created for the game plan.
“Just try to do it as well as I can,” Van Pelt said. “I really don’t have an approach. Obviously I have a good feel for Kevin and how he’s called it throughout the course of the season. I want to stay true to his beliefs in offense and I feel the same way. Nobody calls it the same. But hopefully it’ll be very similar.
“We’ve had a lot of success offensively, and my hope is at the end of the game there’s not too many times where he’s yelling at his TV going, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”
Stefanski’s been the voice in quarterback Baker Mayfield’s helmet all season, but Mayfield doesn’t expect much of an adjustment.
“Kevin is fully confident in AVP doing this, as am I,” Mayfield said. “We talked about this before the season even started. I am not worried about it.”
Offensive line coach Bill Callahan, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard will also miss the game after testing positive, and receivers coach Chad O’Shea and assistant line coach Scott Peters could be out, as well. Priefer said they have contingency plans to handle the absences, but all the COVID losses and disruption are a lot to handle.
“It’s like every morning you wake up and say, what else can you deal with?” Priefer said. “Everything’s been different. But from the leadership with Andrew (Berry, GM) and Kevin on down to the coaches and even the players, we’ve been so adapted and so flexible, we’ve been so resilient in fighting through every piece of adversity that we’ve had to deal with this year, and I think we’ve done a great job with that thus far and we’re going to continue to do so.
“We plan on giving our best effort on Sunday night play after play after play, playing physical, playing fast, winning the turnover battle and doing the things that have helped us win games all year long. That is not going to change.”