The Cleveland Browns clinched their first playoff berth since 2002 last Sunday with a (24-22) win over the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers to finish (11-5).
They’ll enter the playoffs minus their first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski who’s also a candidate for NFL Coach Of The Year.
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) January 8, 2021
They’ll be tasked with trying to win a playoff game for the first time since (1994) when Bill Belichick was their head coach and Nick Saban was their defensive coordinator. They’ll also have to do it against the archrival Steelers at Heinz Field. A place they haven’t won in the last 17 attempts. In addition, the team hasn’t practiced all week long.
Known as the “Turnpike Rivalry” or “Turnpike War” because the majority of the driving route between the two cities are via the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes this rivalry spews major vitriol.
Losing the 38-year-old Stefanski for the franchise’s biggest game in nearly 20 years doesn’t help Cleveland at all. His absence removes the playcaller who’s made Baker Mayfield a much more comfortable and efficient quarterback in his third season.
They have a connection that’ll be hard to duplicate on Sunday. The task will now fall on Alex Van Pelt who serves as the offensive coordinator. Van Pelt installs the gameplan but Stefanski calls the plays on gameday. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will lead the Browns as head coach while Stefanski self isolates.
Cleveland had to close their facility on Tuesday, and go virtual in preparation, so that also means less practice time for a team who’ll be without their leader on Sunday night.
Unfortunately, this is the new norm and can happen to any team during this unprecedented COVID-19 ravaged season.
Teams have had to adjust on the fly and use contingency plans to get through a season that has now reached the one-game elimination point. Not an ideal situation for any team, but especially a team where the head coach also calls the plays.
Calling plays is about rhythm and that’s something he and Mayfield were in total sync with. Stefanski knows when to dial-up certain plays in those key situations. Also, this is his team made in the mold of his vision. Earlier this season the Alabama Crimson Tide had to face their arch-nemesis the Auburn Tigers minus Nick Saban who tested positive for the virus.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian stepped in and the team didn’t miss a beat as they rolled (42-13). But this is the Steelers on the road.
If I’m the Browns, a steady diet of their dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt would be my recipe with some play-action shots mixed in once the running game gets going.
The threat of COVID-19 could play a huge role in deciding who gets to Tampa for Super Bowl LV. Imagine if Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers contracts COVID the day before the Super Bowl. Or the day of?
That would be a disaster. Cleveland’s only hope is that Stefanski’s absence inspires Cleveland to elevate — and no more positive tests come through. Basically, it’s survival of the fittest in this NFL season, and all the 14 teams left can do is hope they can avoid major setbacks that could derail any hopes of holding the Lombardi trophy.