CLEVELAND (AP) — Amid a masked, muted celebration in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought, coach Kevin Stefanski asked for a game ball and then told Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio to step forward.
Stefanski flipped the ball to Bitonio, who had survived seven long seasons, 0-16 in 2017, the Johnny Manziel mess and numerous coaching changes.
“You’re going to the playoffs, 75,” Stefanki told Bitonio.
Two days later, nothing was certain with the Browns.
Positive COVID-19 tests have knocked Stefanski, Bitonio, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and at least two assistant coaches out of Cleveland’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh Jan. 10 – the Browns’ first playoff appearance since the 2002 season.
The Browns announced Jan. 5 – 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 has thrown Cleveland’s plans this week into disarray for the wild-card game.
In less than 48 hours, joy for the Browns and their long-suffering fans was all but extinguished.
“Very sad,” Browns center and NFLPA President JC Tretter said. “It’s really unfortunate.”
Now, after beating the Steelers Jan. 3 to make the playoff field, the Browns are implementing contingency plans drawn up when the pandemic began.
Stefanski, who in his first year returned the Browns to respectability, can only coach virtually from home this week. He’ll be replaced by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, and the Browns will have to make other staff adjustments as tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard are also out.
Despite the Browns’ issues – they now have eight rotational players and five coaches on the COVID-19 list – league spokesman Brian McCarthy said the game is on schedule.
McCarthy added the league is continuing to conduct contact tracing to identify any possible high-risk close contacts. NFL rules state that anyone testing positive must be away from the team at least 10 days.
“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 wrote in an email. “They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game.”
It’s still 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.
With Stefanski out, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will assume Cleveland’s 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.”
Cleveland has been one of the teams hit hardest by the virus. The Browns were without six players, including star cornerback Denzel Ward, and three 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.
VERNON, HARRIS ON IR
The Browns placed defensive end Olivier Vernon and rookie guard Nick Harris on injured reserve Jan. 5.
Vernon tore his left Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of the 24-22 win over Pittsburgh Jan. 3 and will undergo surgery. His loss is a major one for the defense, which could be missing more players for this week’s playoff game against the Steelers.
Harris, who was pressed into playing a few weeks ago when Chris Hubbard suffered a season-ending knee injury, got hurt in a Dec. 27 loss to the New York Jets.
Harris was the Browns’ top backup at guard and his loss further complicates things up front with Pro Bowler Bitonio out for at least this first playoff game.
WHAT A DRAG
Wide receiver Rashard Higgins and rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills were cited for drag racing by police in Westlake earlier this week. According to an incident report and court records, the players were stopped Jan. 5. The report said a marijuana joint was “found and destroyed.” It wasn’t immediately known in which vehicle it was found. A team spokesman said the Browns are aware of the incident, “gathering more information and will handle appropriately.” Wills, who was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 draft, said on Twitter that people were “Blowing it way out of proportion.”
Higgins is in his fifth season with Cleveland, and has been a solid contributor on the offense.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.