The NFL currently has seven teams in “advanced COVID protocol”, including the Cleveland Browns. Most notably, the Browns have twenty players placed on the COVID-19 list in recent days, including their starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield, backup quarterback Case Keenum, safety John Johnson; both of their starting tight ends and nearly half of their offensive line. Cleveland head 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 seems unlikely.
Last year, the NFL remained rigid on not postponing games made perfect sense. The Denver 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 quarterback depth chart tested positive for the virus. The team, infamously, started Kendall Hinton, a wide receiver, at quarterback and lost 31–3 to the Saints. The NFL even resisted an aggressive push from then Broncos general manager John Elway to move the game back so he and his team could have a healthy quarterback.
Sure, taking it to those extremes felt like the league was punishing teams like the Broncos who thumbed their nose at a global pandemic that has killed 5.3 million and counting worldwide. But, the league should revisit their process given that there is a major difference between this season and last: the availability of a vaccine. The majority of the league’s players have willingly taken at an NFL facility in order to be able to move about said facility freely and protect one another from the spread of the virus. On Cleveland's side of things, we know, for example, that Stefanski is vaccinated and has received a booster. Mayfield is vaccinated as well.
With that said, what the league should do in cases like the Browns, 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.
"Throughout the pandemic, we have continuously evolved our protocols to meet our goal of advancing the safety of the players, coaches and staff," reads a joint memo from the NFL and the NFLPA. "... All of these changes are grounded in our data and science-backed approach, with safety our number-one goal for the entire NFL community."
Cleveland is in the middle of a difficult path to the playoffs in which they have virtually zero room for error. A loss to the Las Vegas on Saturday would, according to FiveThirtyEight, drop their odds of reaching the playoffs to 14%, with road games against the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers looming.
Granted, the Browns won a playoff game last year with Stefanski watching in quarantine from his basement. But asking Cleveland now to win a game without their quarterback, the majority of their offensive line, both tight ends, a large portion of their secondary and some other critical pieces with serious playoff implications is completely unreasonable and unfair. Whatever the predetermined threshold might be on a team’s ability to succeed through adversity, the Browns seemed to have passed that a while ago.
The arguments against doing this all come from a business perspective. There will be angry fans harassing ticket workers, complaining that they cannot attend the game any other time than Saturday in particular. CBS will have to scramble and replace Saturday's game. The NFL will then need to enact emergency scheduling, which may adversely affect or inconvenience another non-afflicted team down the road, leading to the same vicious cycle already mentioned over the last few sentences.
Despite all of that, this is unfair assuming that the Browns have followed the league-mandated protocols. There are assuredly players on Cleveland's roster who took the vaccine despite personal reservations to avoid this exact scenario. The product, while nowhere near as bad as the no-quarterback Broncos game, will be diluted, and Cleveland’s playoff chances could be ruined because it’s losing a battle to an invisible enemy that no one has found a way to successfully defeat.
That, and what is the point of staging a nationally televised game if the entire thing is essentially being held while Browns players might be in protest? Mayfield took to Twitter Thursday evening to ask honest questions that deserve an answer from the league. Unfortunately, Mayfield probably won't get an answer to his questions and will instead be fined by the NFL. All while he watches from home and Nick Mullens tries to lead Cleveland to victory.
Stefanski, meanwhile, has the right idea, which is to communicate that the Browns will press on. He said that the game is still at the same time on Saturday, “unless I’m told otherwise.”
Unfortunately, Stefanski won’t be.
Last year in their playoff victory over the Steelers, the Browns had to throw in Blake Hance, an offensive lineman that Mayfield joked he’d never met before. Hance was signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad a few weeks earlier in case of emergency. That situation was a testament 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 and it shows no sign of slowing down. Cleveland's players are following the protocols put in place and it’s those protocols that have failed. The Browns shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences because of it.