CLEVELAND — Two days after celebrating their return to the NFL playoffs, the Cleveland Browns were knocked flat.
COVID-19 will keep coach Kevin Stefanski and at least two players, one a Pro Bowl selection, 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 for the coronavirus, which has plagued the team in recent weeks and now is causing a major disruption as Cleveland prepares to play Pittsburgh on Sunday for the second straight week.
Just 48 hours ago, the Browns and their fans were overjoyed when the team ended the league’s longest playoff drought with a 24-22 win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and others to be fresh for the playoffs.
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 more 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.
Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter called Stefanski’s loss “huge.” Tretter has been in touch with Bitonio, the team’s longest-tenured player, who has been through years of losing only to have his first taste of the playoffs end abruptly.
“I feel for him and all the guys who won’t be able to play,” Tretter said on a Zoom call. “Extremely tough, terrible scenario for him and everyone involved.”
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 in Pittsburgh. He added the league is continuing to conduct 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 e-mail. “They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game.”
It’s possible the Browns will lose other players after contact tracing is completed.
The genomic sequencing conducted by the league and its medical partner last week showed Cleveland’s cases were unconnected, meaning the cases came from outside and weren’t spread within the team’s headquarters.
Because Bitonio and Hodge played Sunday, there would seem to be concern that some Steelers 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 Cleveland’s turnaround, will remain at home and work virtually. He’ll still 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 Sunday, said he’s not concerned about playing the Browns twice in eight days.
“I have complete confidence in the protocol outlined by the NFL,” Tomlin said. “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.”
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 a day earlier. Haden tested positive; his status for the playoff game remains uncertain.
Cleveland has been one of the teams hit hardest 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 disease 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. He endured the 0-16 season in 2017 and numerous coaching and front-office changes, only to have COVID-19 derail his dreams.
Last weekend, Stefanski presented Bitonio with a game ball to recognize his journey.
“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.”
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 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.