CLEVELAND (AP) — Two days after celebrating their return to the NFL playoffs, the Cleveland Browns were knocked flat.
COVID-19 will keep coach Kevin Stefanki — and at least two players, one a Pro Bowler — out of the team’s first playoff game since the 2002 season.
The Browns announced Tuesday — 18 years to the day since their last playoff game — that Stefanski tested positive with the virus, which has plagued the team in recent weeks and now causing a devastating disruption as Cleveland prepares to play the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second straight week on Sunday.
Just 48 hours ago, the Browns fans were overjoyed by the team ending the league’s longest playoff drought with a 24-22 win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and other prominent starters to be fresh for the playoff opener.
Now, the Browns are launching contingency plans that have been in place since the pandemic began.
Stefanski tested positive along with Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and two coaching staff members — tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. The Browns already had six players and three other assistants on the reserve COVID-19 list.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be the acting head coach Sunday.
NFL rules state that anyone testing positive must be away from the team at least 10 days.
League spokesman Brian McCarthy said there is no change to the status of Sunday night’s game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. He added the league is continuing to conduct standard contact tracing to identify any possible high-risk close contacts.
“If any players or personnel are identified as such, they would remain apart from the team and facilities for five days from the last exposure to a positive individual,” McCarthy said in an email to The Associated Press. “They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game.”
Because Bitonio and Hodge played against the Steelers, there would seem to be concern that some Pittsburgh players could become infected.
But McCarthy said the league has “found no evidence of player-to-player transmission from practices or games throughout this season.”
Stefanski, one of the top candidates for NFL Coach of the Year for the Cleveland turnaround, will remain at home and work virtually this week. He’ll still be able to participate in meetings and help structure the game plan.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will assume play-calling duties.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who spent a few minutes speaking with Stefanski on the field before Sunday’s game, said he’s not concerned about playing the Browns twice in eight days.
“I have complete confidence in the protocol outlined by the NFL,” said Tomlin, who worked with Stefanski in Minnesota. “We work hard to adhere to it, if we do that, we will minimize risk. That’s my mentality regarding it so I won’t spend a lot of time worrying about those components. That’s not my charge.”
The Steelers have their own COVID-19 issues. Starting cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Eric Ebron missed Sunday’s loss after being placed on the COVID-19 list Saturday. Haden tested positive and his status for the playoff game remains uncertain.
Cleveland has been one of the hardest hit teams by the virus. The Browns were without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and the assistants last weekend for their biggest game in years after a rash of positive tests.
Also, star defensive end Myles Garrett missed two games after contracting COVID-19. Garrett has had a difficult time shaking the illness and recently said he was still undergoing breathing treatments.
For Bitonio, the positive test deprives him of finally reaching the playoffs after so many difficult years with the Browns. He endured the 0-16 season in 2017 and numerous coaching and front-office changes only to have COVID derail his dreams.
Following Sunday’s game, Stefanski presented Bitonio with a game ball to recognize his journey and asked him to address his teammates
“It was just I appreciate everybody in the room and the work that they put in from the top down, just working to change the culture here,” Bitonio said when asked about the moment. “There was a culture of losing and a culture of not being able to finish some of the games that we have been in and … hopefully we are setting the stage for a winning culture in Cleveland for a long time.”
On Monday, Stefanski said he didn’t want to get into “hypotheticals” regarding Ward or any of the other infected players. Now, he must work only virtually to prepare Cleveland for its first playoff game since Jan. 5, 2003 — a 36-33 loss at Pittsburgh.
The Browns are the second NFL team to be without their coach during the pandemic. Detroit interim coach Darrell Bevell sat out the Lions’ Dec. 26 game at Tampa Bay because of COVID-19 protocols.
Priefer, who is from Cleveland and spent several years on Minnesota’s staff with Stefanski, was an interim coach for one game in 2016 when Mike Zimmer had eye surgery.