On Sunday, January 10, the Cleveland Browns will play one of the most important games in recent franchise history. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, the team has made the playoffs; on Sunday night, they’ll face the Pittsburgh Steelers with a chance to win their first postseason game since 1994. The days leading up to that game, though, haven’t exactly gone according to plan.
Thanks to COVID-19, the Cleveland Browns will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski and guard Joel Bitonio for Sunday’s game. While that’s already a challenge, Jedrick Wills Jr. and Rashard Higgins did their share to make things worse.
COVID-19 has made the Cleveland Browns first playoff game even tougher
Playing a single-elimination playoff game, on the road, against a quality team who happens to be your rival will never be an ideal situation. For the Cleveland Browns, however, things just became even tougher.
On Tuesday morning, the Browns issued an official statement, explaining that head coach Kevin Stefanski had tested positive for COVID-19; as you would assume, that forced the team to shake things up. For Sunday’s playoff game, Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer will take over as the acting head coach. According to Jake Trotter of ESPN, it’s expected that offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call plays in Stefanski’s place.
The losses, however, didn’t stop there. The Browns also confirmed that two additional coaches and two players tested positive for the coronavirus. A subsequent statement confirmed that one of those players was guard Joel Bitonio.
While offensive lineman might not be the most exciting players to watch, the Browns will miss Bitonio on Sunday. The guard has made three-straight Pro Bowls and would have been a key part of the effort to slow down a Pittsburgh defense that knows how to get after opposing quarterbacks.
Jedrick Wills Jr. and Rashard Higgins add to the issues by drag racing
The Cleveland Browns’ terrible Tuesday didn’t stop there, though. During the evening, news broke that two of their players, lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. and receiver Rashard Higgins, had gotten into some off-field trouble.
According to another story by ESPN’s Jake Trotter, the two men were both “cited for drag racing” on Tuesday morning. “The two were pulled over just before 9:30 a.m. ET and were each written $124 tickets,” Trotter continued. “Police also conducted a probable cause search in one of the vehicles for a suspected marijuana joint, according to the report. Police didn’t specify which vehicle had the suspected joint, and neither Higgins nor Willis was cited for it.”
The wide receiver also took to social media and decided to defend himself with two less-than-ideal claims. “On Tuesday evening, Higgins posted on Twitter that his ‘foot slipped,’ in regard to the drag racing citation, before deleting the tweet,” Trotter wrote. “He also posted he ‘was tryna get away from Covid,’ before deleting that tweet, as well.”
It’s safe to say the Cleveland Browns didn’t want this week ahead of the playoffs
Without delving too deeply into the big book of sports cliches, no team wants to shake things up heading into the playoffs; by and large, everyone wants to keep things consistent and go about their business as usual. The Cleveland Browns, however, won’t have that luxury.
Thanks to COVID-19, Kevin Stefanski can’t physically be involved in his team’s preparation. While we’ve all become adept at working from home during 2020, it’s not ideal to suddenly go remote when there’s a major deadline closing in. He’ll also be missed on Sunday; no matter how much the Browns try to keep him involved in the process, at some point, someone else will have to make a crucial decision.
The same is true for Joel Bitonio. While every team is used to dealing with inopportune absences, it’s brutal to lose a starting lineman right before facing a dangerous pass rush in a must-win playoff game.
Then comes Higgins and Wills Jr. While it’s unlikely that the citation will affect either players’ availability—if it does, things will be even worse—the two men still picked the worst possible time to get into trouble. In theory, the Browns could respond to their positive COVID tests by creating somewhat of a siege mentality; without some key contributors, the message could be for everyone to buckle down and take care of business together. Now, if nothing else, they’ll be facing drag race-related questions for the next few days.
On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns already had the weight of their own history resting squarely on their collective shoulders. Thanks to their positive COVID-19 tests and the poor decision making of two player, though, things have become even tougher.