Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki tested positive Wednesday and was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. He played the best game of his two-year career in the 22-17 win over the Eagles, highlighted by a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, but most likely won’t get the chance to build on it Sunday against the Jaguars.
The team facility was closed in the morning as contact tracing began.
The building reopened in the afternoon, but coach Kevin Stefanski had the offense and defense practice separately and eight players, as well as some staff, were held out of the workouts because the contact tracing wasn’t complete. None of the eight players, including four linebackers, or any of the staff was identified as a high-risk close contact.
Trying to finish a football season as coronavirus cases spike across the league, state and country presents numerous challenges, in addition to the potential health risks.
“It was odd today, but that is what we are used to this year,” running back Nick Chubb said.
After at least the organization’s fifth positive test since Nov. 7, Stefanski decided not to have a normal practice. Instead, the offense went through drills in the field house — it was raining in Berea — then the defense. Reporters aren’t permitted to attend indoor practices because of COVID-19 protocols.
“We’ll space the two groups out,” Stefanski said. “I think it’s really important that we get the work in today.”
Wednesday practices kick off the workweek and begin the installation of the game plans, but this one didn’t even have any 11-on-11 drills. The day began with players being told to keep their phones handy for schedule changes.
“It was different,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “It is kind of a what-is-next mentality. Just go through what we have been given installation-wise and go through that a couple more times mentally because you do not know if you are going to get reps at it.
“Coming in with just the offense, we were able to get some really good work in. Did what we needed to on a Wednesday, and we were able to have film and go learn from that and talk about it.”
The Browns (7-3) play the Jaguars (1-9) on Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Takitaki became the fifth player on the team’s COVID-19 reserve list. Defensive end Myles Garrett, fullback Andy Janovich, offensive lineman Chris Hubbard and defensive end Joe Jackson were placed on the list over the last two weeks.
Garrett, who shares the league lead with 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, missed the win over the Eagles after testing positive Friday. Stefanski ruled him out Monday for the game against the Jaguars and said Wednesday he might be able to return Dec. 6 to play the Titans.
Stefanski ruled out Janovich and Jackson for the Jaguars but said Hubbard was a possibility to play.
If Takitaki is asymptomatic, there’s a small chance he could be cleared by Sunday. But the Browns are expected to be without three defensive starters: Garrett, Takitaki and cornerback Denzel Ward, who’s out with a calf strain. In addition to scoring the game’s first points with the pick-six, Takitaki had three solo tackles, including one for a loss, in 21 snaps in the base defense. He’d likely be replaced by rookie third-round pick Jacob Phillips, who’s missed most of the year with a knee injury.
“The next-man-up mentality that we want to be about, no matter who is out there, we want to be able to go out there and execute,” Mayfield said. “Whether it is COVID stuff or injuries, you never want to have it, but you have to deal with it, especially this year.”
The team held its meetings virtually, as it has for weeks, with Stefanski adding a few minutes because of the change in the practice.
“The guys are adapting, they’re being flexible,” Stefanski said. “Coach (Alex) Van Pelt (offensive coordinator) showed a picture of Stretch Armstrong this morning, and that’s who we are, and that’s who we’ve got to be.”
The Browns have done a good job limiting the high-risk close contacts. None was identified for the four players known to have tested positive — Takitaki, Garrett, Janovich and Hubbard.
Mayfield was a close contact of a staff member who tested positive and missed a few days over the bye week. Right tackle Jack Conklin and kicker Cody Parkey went on the COVID list last week after being close contacts of a medical practitioner not employed by the team who tested positive. They were activated in time to play the Eagles.
Stefanski said the steady trickle of COVID news affecting the Browns wasn’t wearing on him or his players.
“No. Not at all,” he said. “It’s 2020, we’re ready to go.”
Stefanski and the organization have taken the coronavirus seriously since the start, and Stefanski continues to stress to his players the importance of staying safe outside team headquarters.
“We’ve talked about it all the time,” he said. “When we’re in the building we’re very safe. When we’re out of the building you’ve got to be safe. When you leave our bubble, obviously you’ve got to make great decisions, and I think the guys understand that.”
Mayfield believes the difficult circumstances and string of adversities have galvanized the team.
“I think it has brought everybody closer,” he said. “I hit on it earlier in the year of what we did to get to know some of these guys to lay a foundation for a true team before we started this journey. I think that has carried true throughout the year.
“We realize to be able to adapt and deal with the uncertainties, whoever does it best is going to have the most success. I think we are only going to get stronger as the year goes on because we have been doing it the whole time. I am looking forward to see one week at a time what this team does.”