Coach Kevin Stefanski can’t truly relate.
He’s only cheered for the orange and brown for a season. He’s experienced 12 wins to five losses, a winning ratio foreign in these parts. He’s already enjoyed a playoff victory.
But he got a glimpse of what it’s like to be a Browns fan Sunday night when he was stuck in his basement for the 48-37 wild card victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field.
“I have a newfound respect for all of our fans and how they watch those games,” he said Monday. “I like it better when I have some control.”
Stefanski was sidelined and quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 last Tuesday. He’s experienced “very, very mild” symptoms, including a loss of taste, but expects to rejoin the team for practice Thursday. The Browns face the top-seeded and defending champion Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo.
Watching on TV once was more than enough.
“I don’t plan on doing that again,” Stefanski said.
That’s a good thing. Not only did the Browns miss his leadership and calming presence on the sideline, he needs work as a TV viewer.
While the rest of Browns Nation — and the football world — was blown away by Karl Joseph’s fumble recovery for a touchdown to start the game, Stefanski wasn’t surprised. And not because he’s a football visionary.
“The funny part about that is I am in the basement isolating from my family and I guess that my feed, for whatever reason, I must have hit pause or something, was about 45 seconds behind,” he said. “So I heard my kids going crazy upstairs so I had an inkling something good was going to happen on that first play.”
Not making sure the TV is live is a rookie mistake, but Stefanski gets a pass after instilling a culture in which the absence of the coach, four assistants, No. 1 cornerback Denzel Ward and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio doesn’t cause the team to blink. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer oversaw the smooth operation on the sideline, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt filled in admirably as play caller.
“We knew it was going to be different without him being there but, of course, we felt his presence,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said of Stefanski. “Coach Priefer did an amazing job of handling the reins in his absence, but he was still there in spirit. We got the job done, and that is the most important thing.”
Stefanski is normally the picture of calm but wasn’t so cool in the privacy of his basement. He tried to lock in on the play calls and the players’ assignments but wound up doing a lot of pacing as he listened to Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth call the game on NBC.
“I just turned into a fan of the team just pulling for our guys like crazy,” Stefanski said. “But it is a very, very unique feeling, not to be there with them. There was a ton of nervous energy that usually does not exist on the sideline for whatever reason, but it existed for me last night.”
“I am sure it was nerve-racking,” center JC Tretter said.
If the expectation holds, Stefanski will miss practice Wednesday, return Thursday and be with the team in Kansas City as the Browns try to shock the world for a second straight week. He and his players concede nothing.
“We are one of eight teams. I am not a math major, but we will take those chances,” he said. “That is what the guys understand, this is the fun part about the playoffs. Every game gets bigger and bigger and the challenge gets bigger and bigger. Have a big challenge this week playing the Super Bowl champs.”
The Browns are a consensus 10-point underdog. While quarterback Baker Mayfield relishes the role, Tretter doesn’t think it matters.
“We are focused on what we do with the guys in that locker room and inside that building, so I do not think anybody gets too caught up in what other people are telling us we can or cannot do,” he said. “I think we are really confident in what we can do. We have played well this year and we know if we go out there and play to the best of our abilities we can compete with anybody.”
The focus is on the Chiefs, but the goal of bringing Cleveland its first Super Bowl is on everyone’s mind.
“Yeah, I don’t know why it wouldn’t be,” Tretter said.
Stefanski didn’t provide an update on the possible return from the COVID-19 reserve list of Ward, Bitonio, nickelback Kevin Johnson, receiver KhaDarel Hodge, offensive line coach Bill Callahan, assistant line coach Scott Peters, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. They should be able to return depending on their symptoms and health.
“It is going to be really nice to get guys back,” Tretter said. “Guys like Joel, Coach Stefanski to come in and be with us again, and play and coach, and just kind of unite the entire team again. That is going to be really great.”
“Coach Stefanski – this one’s for him!”
Our locker room was HYPE last night pic.twitter.com/e64iINixwO
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 11, 2021
Receiver Jarvis Landry was still on the field when he FaceTimed Stefanski, who had turned on his phone after avoiding the distraction during the game. The reunion continued in the locker room, as the absent coaches and players were electronically brought into the celebration.
“It was a strange feeling, but great to just let those guys know how proud of them I am,” Stefanski said, already looking forward to his return. “It is not something I take for granted, I will tell you that. I really enjoy working with the people I work with. I love coaching this team, these players. We have a bunch of fighters on this team. I am looking forward to getting back in the building with them.”
He’s taken drives during isolation to avoid going stir crazy and has witnessed the excitement building around Northeast Ohio.
“I have done a lot of driving around town the last few days just because I have to get out of here, and just to see all the Browns flags and seeing everybody wearing the Browns hats, I definitely feel it,” he said. “I think our players understand how big it is for this community, and we have to keep it going.”