Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski Has COVID-19, Will Miss Playoff Game
Updated: 5:55 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021
Cleveland Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski has tested positive for COVID-19, days before the team is set to take the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers in its first NFL playoff game since 2002. Stefanski will not be with them.
Two more members of the coaching staff and two players – identified by NFL Network and other media sources as offensive lineman and longest-tenured member of the team Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge – also tested positive for the virus, according to a Tuesday morning statement from the Browns. Contingency plans call for Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as acting head coach, the statement said.
“Our facility is currently closed while contact tracing is taking place,” the Browns press release said. “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.”
Browns center and NFL Players Association President JC Tretter called Stefanski’s loss “huge.” According to the Associated Press, Tretter has been in touch with Bitonio, 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, AP reported. “Extremely tough, terrible scenario for him and everyone involved.”
Stefanski, a rookie head coach, led the Browns to an 11-5 season this year, in addition to the team’s first playoff berth in 18 years, surpassing Paul Brown for the most wins for any first-year head coach in franchise history. He’s one of the top candidates for NFL Coach of the Year after turning the team around following years of losses and disorder.
He is reportedly asymptomatic and expected to continue working virtually from home, building the game plan for Sunday, though offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt is expected to assume play-calling duties.
The Browns have had to repeatedly close the team’s facilities over the past two months due to COVID-19 running through the roster and coaching staff. Linebacker Sione Takitaki, lineman Chris Hubbard, fullback Andy Janovich, and defensive ends Joe Jackson and Myles Garrett have all tested positive for the coronavirus since November. A number of other players are currently separated from the team due to COVID-19 protocols, but some may be eligible to return to the team before Sunday night's game. Among those players is cornerback Denzel Ward and linebacker B.J. Goodson.
The team is scheduled to face the Steelers at 8:15 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the first round of the NFL playoffs.