“Next man up” is a favorite adage of every football coach.
But “next 20 men up?”
That’s the predicament the coach-less Cleveland Browns are in for their upcoming game against the Las Vegas Raiders, when Nick Mullens will start at quarterback due to a COVID-19 outbreak that could leave the Browns without more than a third of their usual 53-man roster.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski will also be unavailable due to COVID quarantine.
A scheduled Saturday game in Week 15, the Browns had 23 players and three coaches on the reserve/COVID-19 list as of Sunday night.
By Monday morning, it was evident starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and backup Case Keenum were not ready to go for the 5 p.m. ET kickoff.
The list of players who might miss the game is lengthy and significant.
The Browns learned Wednesday that Mayfield and Stefanski tested positive and landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
On Thursday, backup Keenum went on the COVID list after reportedly testing positive, leaving Mullens as the only available possible starter. On Friday, the Browns added running back Kareem Hunt to the list officially.
And Sunday, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was added to the list while offensive guard Wyatt Teller was removed from it.
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.
Cleveland opened last week as a 6.0-point favorite at BetRivers. That shrunk to 3.0 as the COVID-19 list grew before swapping to the Raiders being 4.5-point favorites as the spread continued.
The Browns flipped back to 3.0-point favorites when the game was moved to Monday, increasing the chance for several key players to be cleared in time. When it became evident that Mayfield and Keenum would not be able to play Monday, the Raiders again took over as a field-goal favorite with the Over/Under settling at 40.5.
The story has been similar at PointsBet, where the Browns opened as 6.5-point favorites but now find themselves as 3.0-point underdogs.
“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.
Mullens is starting his 17th NFL game, with special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer promoted to interim coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt in Stefanski’s stead.
All of Mullens’ previous starts came for the San Francisco 49ers from 2018-20.
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-else 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