“Next man up” is a favorite adage of every football coach.
But “next 18 men up?”
That’s the predicament the Cleveland Browns find themselves in for Saturday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders, thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak that may leave them without their starting quarterback and head coach, among others.
The Browns learned Wednesday that quarterback Baker Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive and landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Since both have been vaccinated, NFL protocols state that they can return to the team after producing two negative tests 24 hours apart if they are free of symptoms.
The team has 18 players presently on that list, 11 of them starters.
Yet the Browns (7-6), who start Week 15 outside the AFC playoff picture after Sunday’s 24-22 home victory over AFC North leader Baltimore, are projecting confidence in the face of mounting odds.
“That is where we are,” Stefanski said. “We have been here before. I do not feel much different than I felt yesterday in terms of everybody has to step up depending on who is available.”
Cleveland is in the NFL’s enhanced protocols, which means daily testing for all tiered personnel, and full-time masking. The Browns held separate walk-throughs on Wednesday for offense, defense and special teams.
Mayfield, Stefanski and the team’s other additions to the COVID-19 list who are vaccinated could still return on Saturday for the home game should they produce the two negative tests.
Otherwise, Case Keenum would get his second start of the year at quarterback, with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer as interim coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt calling plays.
Priefer and Van Pelt guided Cleveland to a 48-37 first-round playoff win at Pittsburgh in January when Stefanski was sidelined due to COVID-19.
“I think the guys proved last year they don’t need me,” joked Stefanski.
Meanwhile, the Raiders (6-7) are pretty much in win-or-die mode after an embarrassing 48-9 defeat Sunday at Kansas City dropped them three games out of first in the AFC West with four games remaining.
To sneak into a playoff berth, the Raiders probably need to win out and get help down the stretch. But one thing that interim coach Rich Bisaccia says won’t enter the equation is frustration or disappointment after such a poor performance.
“I think it’s a wasted emotion,” he said. “I’m just trying to look at from my perspective, as coaches, ‘What can we do better? How can we help them, put them in better situations or better positions to help them play a little better?’
“I think all the emotions are just feelings that we have of what we didn’t do very well and how we’d like to fix them.”
Las Vegas has lost five of its last six games after going into its bye week at 5-2. Sunday’s blowout to the Chiefs featured nine penalties, five turnovers and four sacks in a comprehensive meltdown.
The Raiders own a 14-10 advantage in the all-time series with the Browns, including a 16-6 victory last year in Cleveland.
–Field Level Media