“Next man up” is a favorite adage of every football coach.
But “next 20 men up?”
That’s the predicament the Cleveland Browns are in for Saturday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders due to a COVID-19 outbreak that will likely leave the team without its starting quarterback, its backup QB and head coach, among others.
The Browns learned Wednesday that starting quarterback Baker Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive and were put on the reserve/COVID-19 list. On Thursday, backup QB Case Keenum reportedly went on the COVID-19 list after testing positive, leaving fourth-year quarterback Nick Mullens as the probable starter for Saturday.
As of Thursday evening, the Browns had 20 players on the COVID list, including at least 11 starters, according to cleveland.com.
Yet the Browns (7-6), who start Week 15 on the outside in 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.
“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 walkthroughs on Wednesday for offense, defense and special teams.
If Mayfield and Keenum can’t play Saturday, Mullens would start his 17th NFL game, with special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer as interim coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt calling plays.
All of Mullens’ starts came for the San Francisco 49ers from 2018 to 2020.
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,” Stefanski joked.
The Raiders (6-7), meanwhile, are pretty much in win-or-else mode after an embarrassing 48-9 defeat against Kansas City on Sunday 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.”
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