“The team will continue to consult with the league and medical experts to determine the appropriate next steps as the health and safety of our players, coaches, staff and the entire community remains our highest priority,” the Browns said in a statement.
The Browns said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as acting head coach. Stefanski is in line to be the second head coach to miss a game this season. Darrell Bevell, the interim coach of the Detroit Lions, missed a Dec. 26 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he and four of the team’s defensive assistants were placed in five-day quarantines upon being classified as high-risk close contacts.
Stefanski and the other members of the Browns organization who tested positive are subject to 10-day isolation periods under treatment protocols developed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. They could return to football activities after 10 days if they remain asymptomatic and receive medical clearance.
The Browns-Steelers game remains scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the NFL said.
“There’s no change to the status of the game,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “We are 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. They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game. As you know, there were no positives from tests over the previous couple days.”
Guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge are the players who tested positive in the daily coronavirus results that returned Tuesday, a person familiar with the situation confirmed. Bitonio is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who has spent seven seasons with the Browns and was set to play in his first career postseason game.
“I feel for him,” Browns center JC Tretter, the NFLPA president, said during a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “I feel for all the guys that won’t be able to play for the first playoff game. It is extremely difficult, extremely tough. ... I feel for Coach Stefanski as well. He has done an incredible job as a first-time, first-year head coach, stepping in and leading us into the playoffs.”
For Stefanski, Bitonio, Hodge and the two assistant coaches who tested positive, their 10-day isolation period began Monday, when their test samples were collected, and would run through Wednesday, Jan. 13. They could return to football activities as soon as Thursday, Jan. 14.
Any players or coaches classified as high-risk close contacts for exposure as recently as Monday would be eligible to participate in Sunday’s game. For exposure to the virus Monday, the quarantine would run Tuesday through Saturday. In that case, those players or coaches could not travel Saturday with the team, but the Browns could arrange for private travel for the short trip to Pittsburgh.
Stefanski and the other Browns coaches who tested positive can coach remotely during the week but not on game day. That’s what happened with the Lions when Bevell and Detroit’s defensive assistants were quarantined.
The NFL conducted genomic sequencing tests on the Browns’ positive cases from last week and found them to be unconnected, according to a person familiar with the situation, so there was no transmission of the virus within the team at that point. The new cases will undergo the same testing, according to that person.
The NFL completed its 256-game regular season Sunday within its originally scheduled 17 weeks. Games were rescheduled, especially when the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens suffered major outbreaks. But no games were canceled, and the NFL was not forced to implement its contingency plan of adding an 18th week to the season. The San Francisco 49ers played three scheduled home games in Arizona after being displaced because of coronavirus restrictions in California’s Santa Clara County.
Now 13 games remain: 12 during the AFC and NFC playoffs and then the Super Bowl set for Feb. 7 in Tampa. That stretch begins with six playoff games this weekend. The NFL has said its protocols will not change during the postseason, but its coronavirus-related complications continue.
“We may not have the same [schedule] flexibility that we had in the regular season,” said DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director. “But to me, the most important takeaway here is that we are sticking with the same protocol, the same way of approaching this as we would with any game. ... If we feel that we’ve adequately contained an outbreak and that playing the game doesn’t further jeopardize people on the field for both sides, we move forward with the game. I think that’s the focus right now.”
The Browns closed their team facility three times in a four-day span from Wednesday through Saturday because of positive coronavirus tests. They practiced at least twice in that span, including once when their facility reopened in the afternoon after being closed in the morning. They beat the Steelers, 24-22, on Sunday in Cleveland to improve to 11-5 and clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 2002 season.
The Browns had lost their previous game to the New York Jets, 23-16, on Dec. 27 in East Rutherford, N.J., after placing four wide receivers and two linebackers on their covid-19 reserve list. That list is for players who test positive and those determined to have been exposed to the virus through contact tracing. Linebacker B.J. Goodson reportedly tested positive, and the other players, including Hodge and top wide receiver Jarvis Landry, were classified as high-risk close contacts. The wideouts, including Hodge and Landry, were activated last week and played Sunday.
The loss to the Jets made the Browns the latest team to lose a game while at a major competitive disadvantage. The Denver Broncos lost a November game to the New Orleans Saints when they played without any of their quarterbacks, and the Lions lost to the Buccaneers without many of their coaches. But the Saints did beat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday without four running backs.
NFL leaders said throughout the season that games would be postponed for medical reasons only, not for competitive reasons. That approach will continue in the postseason, and the NFLPA has endorsed it. The NFL decided not to use neutral-site bubbles or mandatory local bubbles (which would have required a team’s players, coaches and staffers to stay in a hotel instead of going home each night) during the postseason. It did leave open the possibility of teams using voluntary local bubbles.