NFL

Steelers-Browns game faces COVID uncertainty

For months, the NFL and its players consistently downplayed the necessity of a postseason bubble, instead harping on the importance of players and teams following COVID-19 safety protocols to finish the season.

The approach has generally worked. On Sunday, the league wrapped up a 256-game regular season on time, aside from a few postponements and rescheduled contests caused by COVID outbreaks of varying degrees of severity. Yet, pulling off the playoffs, and playing the Super Bowl in early February, was always going to represent the hardest challenge for the NFL, especially with COVID cases rising across the country.

And with so much money on the line, and TV contracts to fulfill during the most important point of the season, one can’t help but wonder: Would the same league that hates to adjust its schedule be willing to, gasp, postpone its game for a week due to a significant COVID outbreak?

The truth is, we still do not know. But we may soon find out.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski has the coronavirus. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

How Browns’ outbreak has rattled NFL playoffs

From Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, there were 34 new positive tests among players and 36 new positives among other personnel, the most the NFL has had for a seven-day stretch since the season began.

And on Tuesday morning, the league inched closer to the unknown when the Cleveland Browns, who have made the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, received five positive tests (including head coach Kevin Stefanski), causing their team facility to shut down Tuesday and likely Wednesday.

Over the past few weeks, the Browns have placed 17 players on their COVID-19 reserve list. Contact tracing is underway, and players and staff members will continue to be tested leading up to their Sunday night tilt in Pittsburgh.

What if more players and staff members test positive? What if things get worse? Is there a chance the game could be postponed, potentially disrupting the playoff schedule and Super Bowl timeline?

The answer, says NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, appears to be a resounding … we’ll see.

“The only thing I can say is there haven’t been any conversations about putting off the playoffs or putting off the Super Bowl that I’ve had with the league since the playoffs have started,” Smith told reporters Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean it could never happen.

“You know me, I’m always wary about somebody saying we’re going to take X, Y and Z off the table. I don’t really know what that means in a global pandemic,” Smith said. “It seems to me we’ve gotten to where we are because we’ve kept a lot of options on the table.”

Therein lies the rub. If the outbreak in Cleveland gets worse or another team suffers a more serious one, Smith acknowledged that many of the same contingencies that were used during the regular season to keep the season on track — postponing games, swapping matchups around, etc. — may no longer be available because, um, it’s the playoffs.

“We’ve tried to be incredibly flexible all year — we’ve seen some games moved, some games rescheduled,” Smith said. “But the reality of where we are now in the playoffs and, given the tighter window … we probably don’t have the same level of contingencies for play during the playoffs leading up the Super Bowl, which is why we’re stressing that it is going to require an even increased vigilance.”

So, yes, the Cleveland situation may indeed serve as a wake-up call for the league’s other 13 playoff teams.

Browns’ Tretter makes case against playoff bubble

In the meantime, the league and its players still have to figure out if the wild-card game between Pittsburgh and Cleveland can be played as scheduled. In that regard, Smith insisted that the union will continue to make decisions motivated by what’s in the best safety interests of players and staff.

By their own standards this season, that has simply meant asking whether the outbreak is contained within the team. If it is, the game has gone on as scheduled — competitive balance be damned. Denver was forced to play a Week 12 game without a true quarterback, for example, solely because the outbreak was determined to be contained.

“That was a tough scenario for the Denver Broncos, not having any of their quarterbacks,” Smith said. “I think it would be somewhat unfair if you change the rules later on down the road just because it’s a playoff game. So what we’d like to do is make medical- and data-based decisions. I think it’s a very slippery slope to start making decisions any other way.”

So, by those words, it appears the only way for the Browns’ upcoming playoff game to be moved is if their COVID situation isn’t contained, a possibility Browns center and NFLPA president J.C. Tretter acknowledged.

“When it comes to competitive advantage, that’s not how we’re going to make decisions,” Tretter said. “We have to continue to make decisions through the health and safety lens, and we have to continue to contract trace, continue to figure out where this is coming from, and as we’ll learn more as the week goes on, I think we’ll have a better answer.”

Depending on how the week plays out, the calls for a postseason bubble from fans and observers could grow. But even with his team staring at a situation where it’ll possibly be forced to play its long-awaited playoff game short-handed, Tretter still doesn’t think teams would have been better off with a postseason bubble.

“The bubble, I don’t think, ever was an option that would have worked, especially a voluntary bubble,” Tretter said. “Again, I think if you track the test today, if we play out the bubble scenario where we bubbled up after our game on Sunday, those five guys that tested positive today would have turned positive inside the bubble, and one of the reasons why we closed down the facilities is to make sure that we all are not together.

“So I would argue if we bubbled up, everything we know now, and we brought everybody together under the same roof, now we have five people turning positive inside the bubble and I think that makes us more susceptive to negative outcomes than separating ourselves, living away from each other and keeping as much distance as possible. So I think the voluntary bubble wouldn’t help us with how things went down.”

What people should instead take from the Browns’ current COVID situation, Tretter noted, is that the virus is insidious.

“I think what this proves is that even when doing all the right things, this virus is so contagious that it doesn’t guarantee you full protection,” Tretter said. “That’s something we’ve talked about from the get-go.

“You get Coach Stefanski, who has had an amazing first season as head coach, brings us to the playoffs and won’t be able to be out there to be with us. A guy like [guard] Joel Bitonio, who has played so long in Cleveland and has his first shot to play in the playoffs and missed out. That’s tough, and I feel for them.”

Yet, the beat goes on in Cleveland, where contact tracing continues, and, if the best-case scenario for the league plays out, the virus is ultimately contained, TBD contingencies prove to be unnecessary and the Browns will be only forced to play their biggest game in two decades short-handed.

Little sums up the 2020 season better than that, though Tretter is keeping the faith.

“We win this game and hopefully players and coaches can come back next week,” Tretter said. “That would be great for them, to still get that playoff experience.”

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