On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will play their first playoff game since Blue Crush was in the theaters, and they’ll do it with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer roaming the sidelines instead of head coach Kevin Stefanski.

Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield will be without the services of head coach Kevin Stefanski vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday’s wild-card game. In spite of Cleveland’s month-long COVID outbreak, players said they do not want to isolate. (Image: AP)

Stefanski, along with defensive backs coach Jeff Howard and tight ends coach Drew Petzing, all tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

The virus intermittently shut down the Browns’ facility during December, infecting players, coaches, and staff and decimating an entire receiving corps along the way. It continues to surge with the Browns who on the last week of the season played their way into their first postseason appearance since 2002.

And yet, Cleveland Browns players, the league, and the NFLPA have voiced no interest in a postseason with a bubble-type format.

Idea to Replicate NBA Bubble Rebuffed

Games played in a single location with players isolating in that very spot, the model that worked so well for the NBA last season (zero COVID-19 cases during the end of their season and throughout their playoffs on the at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex inside Walt Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida), is something “I don’t think ever was an option that would have worked,” Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter said via conference call Thursday.

Tretter’s logic is that a bubble doesn’t work because the virus spreads more when the players are forced together.

“The voluntary bubble still has the same dependency on personal accountability that what our protocols currently have,” Tretter said. “You’re still relying on everyone to make the right decisions away from the facility.”

But Tretter’s argument ignores the fact that once players test negative and isolate together without the opportunity to contact the outside world, there is a significantly reduced chance of the virus coming back.

More NFL Players Test Positive for Virus on Eve of Playoffs Than Any Other Time During Season

Back in August, the NFL opted away from a bubble format. In early December, after the Ravens organization experienced an outbreak that infected more than 30 players and personnel, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went on national TV to back up the league’s no-bubble policy. “Virus spread has increased in our community, so that’s a challenge for us,” he said. “But we believe that the protocols that we’ve established are working. We’re going to continue to evaluate and see what improvements we can continue to make.”

For the next month, the league continued for a revolving door of COVID-19 outbreaks, pauses, fines, and shutdowns, with one team even being forced to move out of state due to its own home county’s restrictions.

And this week, the same week that featured the nation’s deadliest day since the pandemic began, the NFL reported 34 players had tested positive for COVID-19, the highest of the season. When infected coaches and personnel were counted, the number rose to 70—for the second-highest one-week total of the season.

Players Didn’t Want to Isolate During Holidays

Had the NFL and NFLPA decided to make such a move to get the virus under control and teams isolated for the playoffs, full-time living in a controlled environment would have had to be in place by at least late-November to curb the virus’s spread in the lead-up.

But the NFLPA voted against isolating players from their families during the holidays.

“We didn’t go into this with a one-size-fits-all model,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said about the NBA bubble protocols during a phone interview with CBS Thursday. “We knew we were going to have to be malleable and somewhat flexible about what to do concerning the protocols.”

The Browns will play at Pittsburgh at 5:15 pm EST Sunday. The Steelers jumped to six-point favorites after Tuesday’s announcement that the Browns’ coaching staff was infected. The line remained there Friday afternoon.

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