A long week full of unexpected news in Berea ended on a good note Friday on the practice field.
The setting — the practice field — is precisely why the final hours of the day felt good. After navigating through a week of uncertainty surrounding news of positive COVID-19 tests within the team, the Browns finally received clearance Friday from the NFL to conduct their first practice of the week.
The Browns needed to cancel practice Wednesday and Thursday as the league examined multiple positive COVID-19 tests, which included coach Kevin Stefanski, who has been coaching the team from a virtual setting since he received his test results Tuesday.
But after a week full of waiting and extra anticipation, he was just happy to have his team finally have an opportunity to practice.
"Worked hard with the league office, (Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager) Andrew Berry and (Senior Vice President of Player Health and Development) Joe Sheehan in making sure we could get out there safely today," he said. "After some discussion, it was agreed upon to get out there and get some work in, but again, safety being the No. 1 priority. That is what is going on right now."
The Browns have compensated for the absence of real practices with ample Zoom meetings and virtual walk-throughs, which coaches have conducted by showing formations, schemes and defensive looks in a flashcard-esque style to players, who are then asked questions about what they would do in each situation.
The method is similar to how the Browns conducted meetings over the offseason, when team practices were not allowed and players were not permitted to use the facility, and has been frequently used by the Browns all season in virtual meetings.
"It's nothing more than putting the cards up for practice," Stefanski said. "We'll put the scout team card and put it on the screen and say, 'Here's what you're getting. Offensive line, talk through your call. Quarterback, chime in. What's your read?' Those type of things."
After countless hours on Zoom all in just one week, the Browns have been itching to get back on the field. Stefanski said they'll slightly deviate from their normal Friday practice schedule and add a few more periods and a walk-through.
But no matter the schedule, the Browns are just thrilled to be back on the field.
"The players and coaches always like to be out on the grass with the guys," Stefanski said with a chuckle. "I think that's much better than being on these Zoom calls."
A peek into Sunday
Stefanski will not be permitted to have any communication with the team 90 minutes before kickoff and throughout Sunday's playoff game, but he believes the Browns have done enough prep work to ensure that won't be an issue.
An 8:15 p.m. kickoff will certainly help — that is the final playoff game slot of the weekend and gives the Browns the maximum amount of time possible to prepare and communicate with their coach. Primetime kickoffs, however, normally are preceded with a slow morning and afternoons for coaches. All of the film has been meticulously watched, and all game plans have been concocted.
"Those are long days waiting for those games to start," Stefanski said. "I'm sure there will be some phone calls here or there, but by and large, a lot of the work is done."
The Browns will conduct a walk-through at some point Sunday before pregame preparations take place, but by then, Stefanski hopes to have already made the most of the time he has to communicate with his team. He won't need to give a pregame pep talk. He won't need to go over the game plan.
He'll be available for any questions or advice, of course, but he has trust in his players and coaches to come to Heinz Field already prepared.
"We have established who we are over the course of the season so the guys know that," he said. "They do not need me to remind them about any of that at this point."
Conklin, Garrett named First Team All-Pros
Two outstanding players from each side of the field were recognized Friday in a prestigious way.
Right tackle Jack Conklin and defensive end Myles Garrett were named to the First-Team All-Pro list by the Associated Press, and both were well-deserving of the honor. Garrett finished sixth in the NFL with 12 sacks while adding four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, while Conklin started 15 games and was a constant force at right tackle and stabilized the Browns' run game and pass attack.
While Conklin and Garrett will have their names on the list, Stefanski believes their achievements only bring to light the success of the entire team.
"I always want our guys to get individual accolades," Stefanski said. "I think it speaks ultimately to the team, but I'm proud of those guys. I think they're more than deserving so that is always something that I am looking forward to with all of those guys being recognized because it is important. Those two in particular, I think would tell you it is definitely within the framework of the team's success."
'Utility players' continue to shine
When Stefanski was hired a year ago and searched for new coaches and personnel to join his staff, he searched for people who could handle a variety of roles and potential coaching duties, or "utility players," as Stefanski has frequently called them.
First, it was Callie Brownson, the team's Chief of Staff, who filled in for tight ends coach Drew Petzing in Week 12 — she's slated to coach in place of Petzing again this week — and pass game coordinator/wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, whom she stepped in for last week.
Assistant defensive backs coach Brandon Lynch also will handle defensive backs coaching duties in replacement of Jeff Howard. For the second consecutive week, Ryan Cordell, a team coaching assistant, will carry two roles at once and fill in for offensive line coach Bill Callahan and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters.
It's quite a bit of shuffling, but it's what Stefanski prepared for when he became head coach. The "depth chart" isn't limited to just players, in his perspective, and should include coaches, just in case.
"You need utility players in a season like this," he said, "and that is where I am happy to have (them) to step in in these moments."
Dunn an option at left guard
With veteran Joel Bitonio and rookie Nick Harris both ruled out for Sunday, the Browns could turn to practice squad call-up Michael Dunn to fill the void at left guard. Kendall Lamm and Blake Hance are among the other options at the position.
Dunn, an undrafted free agent in 2017 out of Maryland, has spent time on the practice squads of three NFL teams and has been with the Browns' practice squad since September. If he starts Sunday, it will be his first in the NFL. He earned praise from Stefanski on Friday for his work ethic and hustle in digesting the playbook and being ready on a moment's notice.
"He is somebody who is always on point in what we are doing, gives a great look and can fill in at multiple spots on the offensive line, Stefanski said. "Versatility is key in a season like this."