While it is not the first time in NFL history by any means that an NFL team will be without its head coach for a game—most notably, the Indianapolis Colts did without Chuck Pagano a number of years ago after he was diagnosed with cancer, and Bruce Arians took over head coaching duties on an interim basis—but the Cleveland Browns’ absence of Kevin Stefanski is the first instance of a head coach missing a game due to Covid-19.
Naturally, it comes as the organization is preparing for its first postseason game in 18 years, prior to which they have already had multiple players and coaches test positive for Covid-19 and had multiple starts on offense pulled over for drag racing. Thus far, they have not been permitted to practice in person, so things could be going better.
Due to the protocols, Stefanski will not be available to the team on Sunday. In fact, he will not even be permitted to be in contact with the team—not even at halftime—once the ball kicks off. A number of people within the league believe that an exception to the rules should be made for a circumstance like this, but there won’t be one. The first-year head coach is unconcerned.
“I think the players understand that it really does not matter who is the head coach on Sunday”, he told reporters yesterday. “They know how we play. They know what our identity is. Coach Prief will be the guy on Sunday. I have a ton of confidence in them, and I know they do, as well. He is a voice that they hear every day. Every single day, Coach Prief has special teams going. I think they have a great amount of trust in him, as well as do I”.
On the other side of the ball is the Pittsburgh Steelers and head coach Mike Tomlin, who has 14 years of experience in the job and is making his ninth postseason appearance. Cleveland’s opponents certainly have the edge in this regard.
Mike Priefer actually has a lengthy history with Stefanski, as the two also worked together with the Minnesota Vikings—Stefanski has been there long enough that he even worked with Tomlin while they were both on the staff.
He told reporters that Priefer has actually served as interim head coach before, doing so once while they were both on the Vikings’ staff, filling in for a Thursday night game, and he commended the job that he did. Every team this year was required to put a plan in place about what they would do in the event that this happened.