The NFL currently has seven teams in “advanced COVID protocol.” Most notably, the Browns have had double-digit players placed on the COVID-19 list in recent days, including their starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield; their second-best defensive player, safety John Johnson; both of their starting tight ends; and nearly half of their offensive line. Coach Kevin Stefanski has also tested positive.
At the moment, the NFL has no plans to change the Browns’ Saturday game time, in keeping with its process from a year ago when several COVID-19-ravaged teams had to play despite entire position groups being eliminated. Afflicted Browns players and coaches who are vaccinated would require two negative tests 24 hours apart, but since they are playing on Saturday afternoon, that scenario is less likely.
That made sense in a twisted sort of way last year. The Broncos left their tracking devices in different corners of the room in an effort to trick the monitoring system and met together, closer than the CDC-recommended distances. Their entire depth chart tested positive for the virus. The team, infamously, started a wide receiver, Kendall Hinton, and lost 31–3 to the Saints. Back then, the NFL resisted an admittedly aggressive push from John Elway to move the game back so he could have a healthy quarterback. One could surmise that, like any parent warning a child not to climb on the back of the sofa, the league wanted to say “see what happens?” when the child finally fell off the back and goose-egged their forehead.
The league should revisit their processes in 2021 given that there is one major difference between this season and last: the availability of a vaccine that a majority of the league’s players have willingly taken at an NFL facility to move about said facility freely and protect one another from the spread of the virus. We know, for example, that Stefanski is vaccinated and has received a booster. Mayfield is vaccinated.
What the league should do in cases like this, is determine an acceptable threshold of critical-to-the-team positive tests that would trigger a schedule alteration so long as a vast majority of those positive tests come from vaccinated players. There are already rules in place the opposite way, where a game would be forfeited if they could not reschedule due to a horde of unvaccinated players testing positive. The reverse needs to be true.
The Browns are in the middle of a tightrope walk to the playoffs in which they have virtually no margin for error. A loss to the Raiders on Saturday would, according to FiveThirtyEight, drop their odds of reaching the playoffs to roughly 15%, with road games against the Packers and Steelers to follow. While they won a playoff game last year with Stefanski watching in quarantine from his basement, asking them to win a playoff-adjacent game without their quarterback, the nerve center of their running game, both tight ends, a large portion of their secondary and some other critical pieces is completely unreasonable and unfair. Whatever the predetermined threshold might be on a team’s ability to succeed through adversity, the Browns passed that miles ago.
The arguments against doing this are all from a business perspective: angry people flooding ticket lines complaining that they cannot attend a game any other time than Saturday, television networks scrambling to replace programming and the NFL needing to enact its emergency scheduling trap door, which may adversely affect or inconvenience another nonafflicted team down the road, leading to more angry phone calls, etcetera.
The response to that? Who cares. I’m guessing Browns fans would rather have a return trip to the playoffs and would be willing to shuffle their personal lives around for a better shot. I’m guessing the NFL Network has plenty of A Football Life reruns they could air (or just get the television rights to Elf, ensuring there is no drop-off in viewership). This is wholly unfair, assuming that the Browns have followed the league-mandated protocols. There are assuredly Browns players who took the vaccine despite personal reservations to avoid this exact scenario. The product, while not as egregiously bad as the no-quarterback Broncos game, will be diluted, and Cleveland’s playoff chances could be irreparably nuked because it’s losing a battle to an invisible enemy that no one in any corner of business, commerce, government, academic or home life has found a way to successfully eradicate. What is the point of staging a nationally televised game if the entire thing is essentially held under protest?
Stefanski has the right idea for now, which is to communicate that the Browns will press on. He noted that the game is still at 4:30 on Saturday “unless I’m told otherwise.” He won’t be. Last year in their playoff victory over the Steelers, the Browns had to throw in an offensive lineman that Mayfield joked he’d never met before (he was signed off the Jets’ practice squad a few weeks earlier in case of emergency). It was a cute story and a credit to the Browns’ preparedness, but what happens when an outbreak the likes of which you can’t anticipate tears the roster apart? New variants of the virus are circulating. The players are following the protocols put in place. It’s the protocols that have failed; the players shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.
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