Q: Why are we playing this game on Sunday?
A: We’re getting straight to the point in the first playoff mailbag of my time on the beat.
First, it’s the playoffs and the NFL isn’t going to delay them unless there’s a catastrophe. Even when the Browns had five positive tests Tuesday, including coach Kevin Stefanski, the league never budged about the status of the game.
Second, after a string of positive tests starting Dec. 26, the Browns have had only one positive since Tuesday, and that was assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters, who had been identified as a high-risk close contact of line coach Bill Callahan on Jan. 2 and isolated. So the NFL can say, with some sincerity, it believes the outbreak has been contained.
The Browns will be without several important coaches and players, but that’s life in 2020/2021. The NFL has been adamant and consistent it won’t postpone games due to a competitive disadvantage.
Q: Why can’t cornerback Denzel Ward be activated today?
A: NFL rules stipulate players must be on the active roster by 4 p.m. the day before a game.
I know there was some confusion about Ward remaining on the COVID-19 reserve list when it had been reported he’d be eligible to return in time to face the Steelers. Well, he was eligible to be activated because the minimum mandatory 10 days of isolation had passed since the sample that tested positive was collected. But just because 10 days passed didn’t mean Ward would return. If he’s symptomatic, the protocols change. He must be without a fever, have decreased symptoms and get clearance from team and league doctors.
Q: Do you believe that Stefanski and the Browns held back last week on some play calls for the playoff rematch vs. Pitt?
A: I do. I didn’t initially think he would save anything given the fact the Browns needed the win to get in the playoffs. But he acknowledged after the game a potential rematch with the Steelers was in his head. He also talked about keeping running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt fresh for the playoffs.
So I think Stefanski was able to straddle the line of making the playoffs without emptying his arsenal. So I’d expect at least a few wrinkles tonight in Pittsburgh.
Q: There are a lot of NFL teams now on the hunt for a head coach. Is it too early in the Stefanski era for teams to start tapping into his coaching tree?
— John Palazzo
A: I wondered the same thing but couldn’t find an assistant coach who’d be a hot candidate. Callahan is probably the most valued coach on the staff but is older and has been a head coach before. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt doesn’t call the plays, so that lessens his desirability. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ unit had issues throughout the season.
If the Browns take another step next year, this would change.
Q: What’s behind the COVID-19 outbreaks in our facilities? It’s eerily similar to the staph outbreaks that ultimately ended LeCharles Bentley’s career. Especially troubling considering the world-class reputations of Cleveland area hospitals?
A: I’m not sure they are parallels.
The staph issue was all about the building, while the COVID problems are throughout the community, as evidenced over and over by the climbing cases in the county and state. And the NFL’s genomic sequencing showed until this week all the cases had come from community spread rather than passed within the organization.
I certainly think some of the individuals could’ve done a better job protecting themselves, although I’m confident Stefanski and Joel Bitonio believed they did all they could to avoid the virus. But I don’t view the recent string of positives, including the outbreak Tuesday, as a medical failure of the organization. If anything, it was more about personal responsibility.
Q: Will the Browns devise more aggressive protocols to prevent their players from getting COVID-19 if they make the playoffs?
— Bob from Akron
A: You asked this after the game last week. By then it was too late.
The rash of positive tests Tuesday means enacting protocols Sunday night or Monday wouldn’t have mattered. The Browns were already holding all their meetings virtually and only coming together for practice, in which players wear masks or plastic shields added to their face masks.
To me, the Browns have had two obvious lapses in their protocols. The five players identified as high-risk close contacts to linebacker B.J. Goodson before the game against the Jets, including the top four receivers, could’ve been avoided if they didn’t spend so much time together in the recovery area at the team facility and were vigilant about proper mask wearing. The other was Peters being identified as a close contact of Callahan.
Absent of a lockdown of all players, coaches, staff and their families, everyone is trusted to make good decisions inside and outside of the building. And there’s definitely a measure of luck involved.