Baker Mayfield will hear someone new in the earpiece inside of his helmet Sunday for the most important game of his NFL career.
The voice will be coming from Alex Van Pelt, the Browns' offensive coordinator, rather than Kevin Stefanski, the Browns' head coach. Stefanski has called plays for Mayfield and the offense all season and has helped ascend Mayfield's passing game to a new tier of efficiency.
Now, Stefanski won't be on the sidelines. He will be unable to coach Sunday night after testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, so instead of hearing the calm, cool and collected baritones of Stefanski, he'll hear Van Pelt.
Don't worry. He's calm, cool and collected, too.
"Much like my relationship with Kevin, (the relationship with Van Pelt) has been growing a lot as we have gone through these weeks with everything starting virtually and just getting to be around him more," Mayfield said. "He is not that far removed from his playing days. Just a real relatable guy. Very understanding. The open communication is pretty essential to what has been our success so far. AVP is just like that. He wants to talk through it and hear our thoughts as well."
Besides maybe a slight change in tone from what he normally hears through his helmet Sunday, Mayfield doesn't expect to hear anything unexpected or different with Van Pelt on the headset. The two have worked closely since the spring on technique, play designs and understanding the playbook.
Stefanski has always been with them in the discussions, too, and after four months and 16 games of showing off their work, Van Pelt and Mayfield feel more than comfortable with operating through a game together. The preparation leading up to the game will stay similar as it would for any other game — Stefanski can still coach from a virtual setting until kickoff Sunday — and the offense won't have to change anything even though their coach won't be on the sidelines.
"That line of communication has always been open between the three of us," Mayfield said. "Obviously, there are going to be a few little different nuances with AVP calling it, but Kevin and him are still talking and we are all still having those conversations throughout the week, just like a normal game plan week would go."
Mayfield ended the regular season with 3,563 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, a career best. He played arguably the best football of his career in the second half of the season, when he threw for 11 touchdowns and one interception in the final eight games and accrued a 100.1 quarterback rating.
That ascension was largely due to the work Van Pelt and Stefanski have invested in Mayfield and making the most of the Browns' offensive weapons. Cleveland went 6-2 in that stretch and solidified its status as a team deserving of the playoffs, but the behind-the-scenes work conducted by Stefanski, Van Pelt and Mayfield is why the Browns could get there.
Van Pelt worked with Mayfield on his footwork and overall technique. Stefanski worked with Mayfield on understanding a new playbook and recognizing the correct reads for each play.
Mayfield won't lose sight of any of those principles even though Stefanski won't be there.
"The key for me is to continue stressing things we have been talking about – protecting the football, putting us in position to have the most success, take care of the ball and keep the chains moving," Mayfield said. "It is win or go home. You have to be ready for anything."
This week, "anything" included making a drastic shift at the top of the Browns' coaching totem pole.
But Mayfield believes that change won't carry any significant impact on the offense's preparation level for the first playoff game. After a long season full of unexpected changes and adapting, he believes the rest of the offense would agree with him.
So the only true change he'll notice in the huddle Sunday won't be about how comfortable he is with who's making the play-calling decisions.
Just the voice he hears them from.
"We're going to be ready for any wrinkles and just be ready to adjust and adapt," he said.