It’s rare that the police pulling over two of your top football players for drag racing the week of an NFL playoff game would be an insignificant sidebar to team management. Nor the fact that the cops found a joint in one of the vehicles in a state where that’s not particularly legal. But that’s where we are right now heading into the League’s postseason, where 12 teams will kick off the wildcard round after a regular season that went further than some people assumed it might. Amongst that dozen are the Cleveland Browns, who will make their first playoff appearance since 2002 on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately for the Browns, not everyone gets to go, and it has nothing to do with speeding tickets. This weekend, perhaps the most exciting moment in Cleveland football history since the Bernie Kosar era, head coach Kevin Stefanski will not make the trip because he tested positive for Covid-19 this week. He’ll join at least two other Browns coaches that also tested positive, and potentially two others that couldn’t coach last week. Which means that this weekend, to celebrate the arrival of the Cleveland Browns back to NFL’s upper tier after a lengthy hiatus, they will be led by acting head coach Mike Priefer, who’s day job is the special teams coordinator. There is nothing in the world that’s more Cleveland Browns than that, a team whose home stadium is commonly referred to as the Factory of Sadness.
The Browns will also miss two players who tested positive this week. Fortunately for them, they won’t lose any others through contact tracing, which earlier this week seemed like it could have taken out the better part of the roster. Which would have meant that the Pittsburgh Steelers would have taken on a practice squad wearing Browns uniforms on Sunday. Or you can call them the New York Jets.
Cleveland has shut down their practice facility for a deep clean and are now preparing virtually for the game, which seems really unlikely to have the same effect. There’s a lot of things you can do over Zoom – Uno night, weekly sales calls, school board meeting. But replicating the process of creating human formations to advance a football against another team through sheer physical force does not seem to be one of them. Unless they’re playing on Xbox, which then would be just fine.
It’s not surprising nor even all that newsworthy that NFL players and coaches are testing positive as we run up to the playoffs. Unlike most of America, the NFL tests everyone with abandon. So if someone has it, you’re most likely going to catch it. And, many would suggest this prevents the virus from spreading like wildfire across the team, which generally speaking it hasn’t, a couple of teams excluded. College football seems to have less success in these efforts, which sounds about right. It is beyond the length and scope of this commentary to postulate who was right or wrong and when. And to be sure, there are strong opinions on both sides – that this was a good idea or a cardinal sin. A lot of those arguments are made based on an individual’s frame. In other words, what you believe about the world is very likely what you believe about this NFL season. So I’m hesitant to embrace either narrative, and will simply say that when it comes to this NFL season and Covid, I will defer to the doctors, economists, and sociologists, all who have a far deeper understanding of the risk reward quotient than I.
In the end, that’s the real issue here. Seventeen weeks in the season, we are where a lot of us thought we would be. Still playing, still getting some positive tests, but not nearly enough to shut it all down. NFL insiders will call this a win; critics will call it an atrocity. And both can find support for their claims. I think that the environmental conditions of negotiating this during the most contentious election season in over a century and a heightened vitriol in the American psyche only exacerbates this divide. Which is why perhaps the best thing we can say about this NFL season is that it will all be over soon. But isn’t that true for just about everything these days.
For the Cleveland Browns, that day may be coming sooner than it should have been. And it has nothing to do with speeding tickets.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.