CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns will play their first playoff game since 2002 without first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 just two days after leading the team back to the postseason.
The team announced Stefanski’s positive result on Tuesday — 18 years to the day since the Browns’ last postseason game. Also, Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge also tested positive along with two staff members — tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be the acting head coach Sunday.
We were informed this morning that Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players have tested positive for COVID-19.— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 5, 2021
Our contingency planning calls for Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as the acting Head Coach. pic.twitter.com/Mhh9Zt1e4d
Bitonio and Hodge played in Sunday’s win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other top players to be fresh for the playoffs.
NFL rules state that anyone testing positive must sit out 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.”
It’s a major blow to the Browns (11-5), who qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons on Sunday with a 24-22 win over Pittsburgh — ending the league’s longest playoff drought. They’ll play the Steelers again this week in the first round of the AFC playoffs.
Cleveland has been hit hard by the virus. The Browns were without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and three assistant coaches last weekend for their biggest game in years after a rash of positive tests.
On Monday, Stefanski said he didn’t want to get into any “hypotheticals” regarding Ward or any of the other infected players. Now, he’ll only be able to work virtually this week 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.