If NFL cares about its playoffs, it'll delay Sunday night’s Browns-Steelers game or bend rule for Kevin Stefanski

As Thursday rolled into the afternoon hours for the Cleveland Browns, the vast deflation of what should have been one of the most exciting weeks in franchise history continued.

The practice facility remained closed. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who isn’t allowed to practice with his teammates outside of the facility, told reporters he hasn’t thrown a football since the regular-season finale. Cleveland’s Coach of the Year candidate, Kevin Stefanki, continues to ratchet on a game schematic that won’t involve him from the moment the franchise enters Pittsburgh’s stadium Sunday night. And the front office has done everything but taken to lighting prayer candles in hopes of filling the continued holes in the roster being created by COVID-19 on an almost daily basis.

And all the while, the NFL is sitting on its hands because, hey, rules are not made to be bent unless it’s something the league office actually needs.

That’s the worst part about what is going on with this whole situation in Cleveland. A team that just engineered one of the most sellable points about the NFL — that any ass-backward franchise can get itself back on track quickly with just a few good decisions — is getting gradually sucked into a COVID wood-chipper and the league isn’t really saying anything at all. A team source told Yahoo Sports that the only real “break” Cleveland could catch at this point from the NFL is if another virus outbreak ran through the roster and ate up enough of the depth chart to force the league to push the AFC wild-card game back. That’s the solution here that the NFL has tried selling for much of the season: If your problem is a competitive one and not a health and safety one, well then that’s your problem. Treat it like injuries and good luck.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - OCTOBER 11: Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns meets with head coach Kevin Stefanski in the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 11, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Browns QB Baker Mayfield can't seek sideline advice with head coach Kevin Stefanski on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

I use the phrase “much of the season” because the truth of the matter is the NFL hasn’t been consistent this season. You can find plenty of fan bases who can attest to that. Some have been severely fined for COVID violations and the Las Vegas Raiders even had a draft choice stripped, but others have skated with a slap on the wrist or nothing at all. The basis of difference in those decisions being what the NFL decided was wanton disregard versus a desperate cry of “oops, we had an accident in the middle of a pandemic” (which is sometimes a fair assessment of how some teams got slapped by COVID).

As for the impact on the field, we’ve seen some franchises get the luxury of having their games moved this season, while others like the Browns this week, were forced to deal with the hand they were given. The Denver Broncos come to mind, having been trapped into the single worst game of the entire season by the league, which took the stance that it wouldn’t give the team a mulligan and wait a couple days to make sure an entire quarterbacks room was COVID positive. It wasn’t of course, but the Broncos had to play a game with a practice squad wideout taking snaps from center, which probably wasn’t the safest game he ever played in his life if we’re talking about health and safety.

Just like every other team in the league this season, the league’s office has been taking part in a massive season of trial and error. Things were going to break and the NFL and its teams were going to do their best to fix them and learn. And as part of that process, the learning would lead to adjustments that would make teams safer, better and keep the product at a standard befitting the richest sports league in the world. All of which begs this question:

If the NFL has learned some lessons, why can’t it adjust on the fly and apply that knowledge this week, when it matters most?

Detroit Lions shouldn’t influence Browns’ playoff fortunes

Start with Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID, being isolated from the team and disallowed to coach in Cleveland’s first playoff game in 18 years. The league is sticking to this 10-day isolation decision for two reasons: Consistency and competitive balance.

That sounds like it makes sense, except when you consider the league office’s inconsistent maneuvers for much of the season, particularly when it came to pushing some games but not others — and never once really entertaining the idea of taking a “reset” week (which had everything to do with television and Super Bowl planning). Now the NFL is saying it has to be consistent because everyone agreed before the season that head coaches would have to stay away from their teams if their COVID positive diagnosis ran on top of a game. And, gee whiz, they made Detroit Lions interim coach Darrell Bevell stay home, so they certainly wouldn’t want to step out of that standard.

If 2020 has taught the league anything, it’s that decisions made in the late summer have plenty of room for error. Adjustments can be made, stances rethought, especially when it’s the playoffs. Maybe let the head coaches get a pass in the postseason and be involved in the game-day operations from home. While I sure don’t want Stefanski sitting out in such an important game for the franchise, I also don’t want to see it happen to Mike Tomlin or Andy Reid or Matt LaFleur or any other head coach this month. And I absolutely refuse to believe it should happen in the Super Bowl, so why should the league stick to it in the opening foray?

Don’t say it’s because the Lions will be upset, either. It’s the Lions, and it was one regular-season game with an interim coach. You’re talking about a franchise whose ownership has made such state-of-the-art decisions that it has produced one playoff win in 63 years. In what world do the Lions deserve to dictate whether another team should have a rule bent so that a head coach can be involved in his team’s playoff game during a pandemic season? Particularly when the NFL has already strapped itself to the league’s longest-running favor in football history in allowing the Lions to be locked into a very lucrative Thanksgiving Day game since 1934. The NFL owes the Lions nothing, least of all an explanation for why it won’t downgrade a coaching staff in a playoff game during a COVID season.

Why can’t rule be adjusted for Browns’ Stefanski?

As for competitive balance, Stefanski being at home and coaching the game from that vantage offers nothing. I spoke to a handful of team sources around the league and all agreed that it’s not vastly different than if Stefanski was in a stadium skybox. It wouldn’t interfere with sideline communications in any meaningful way and Stefasnki wouldn’t be getting any elements of additional information that teams can’t get in the course of their games. It’s a non-issue. The Steelers might be upset that the league is bending the rule for Cleveland, given that Pittsburgh got the sharp end of the stick by losing a bye week due to the Tennessee Titans’ outbreak, then a long weekend due to the Baltimore Ravens’ outbreak. I concede that’s possible. I also have been around Tomlin enough to know that he cares about the NFL coaching fraternity and likes to win games without another team being put at an oddball disadvantage. I think Tomlin would give Stefanski a pass, and that’s good enough for me.

To Cleveland’s credit, the Browns aren’t complaining about any of this. As much as the fan base is up in arms and searing a hole into commissioner Roger Goodell at every turn, the franchise has shrugged. Stefanski has suggested it’s about having a stiff upper lip and rolling with it and not making excuses. The front office is just trying to do the best job it can and not lobby for a stoppage or even push for a change to the coaching with COVID rule.

That’s all the more reason to make an exception here in a long season of exceptions. If nothing has been about being fair in 2020, fine, but at least be right where you can be. The league has an opportunity to do that. Either push the game and help the Browns, or at least let them have their head coach involved on game day. You don’t have to be perfect all the time if you’re Goodell. You just have to make the effort when it calls for it.

We’re in that space. Recognize it. Do the right thing.

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