The Browns’ COVID-19 situation seems dire after coach Kevin Stefanski, two players and two assistant coaches tested positive Tuesday, but the NFL has no plans to move the playoff game against the Steelers set for Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
“There’s no change to the status of the game,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to The Chronicle-Telegram. “We are continuing to conduct standard contact tracing to identify any possible high-risk close contacts.”
With the addition of Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio and receiver KhaDarel Hodge on Tuesday, 10 players are on the COVID-19 reserve list, including two from the practice squad.
Tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard were the assistants to test positive Tuesday. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan and pass game coordinator/receivers coach Chad O’Shea tested positive last week, and assistant line coach Scott Peters was identified as a close contact.
The Browns facility was closed Tuesday so contact tracing could be conducted. It was shut down for all or part of every day last week beginning Tuesday.
But the genomic sequencing conducted by the league and its medical partner showed the positive cases from last week were unconnected, meaning the cases came from the outside community and weren’t spread within the building. The NFL will conduct the same process after the latest positive tests.
“We obviously have more work to do tracing and figuring out where the virus is coming from and how to move forward and that will come,” Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter said on a Zoom call. “We don’t have all those answers yet.”
Tretter reiterated the protocols won’t change in the playoffs. Games will be played unless they’re considered a risk for virus spread.
“We’ve operated under that understanding all year, where we’re not going to reschedule for high-risk close contacts, for competitive imbalance,” he said. “We continue to make all of our decisions through a health and safety lens.”
The Browns beat the Steelers 24-22 on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the Steelers aren’t considered close contacts.
“We have found no evidence of player-to-player transmission from practices or games throughout this season,” McCarthy wrote.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin downplayed having played the Browns two days before the latest outbreak. He and Stefanski talked before the game.
“I have complete confidence in the protocol outlined by the NFL, we work hard to adhere to it and I believe if we do that, we’ll minimize risk,” Tomlin told Steelers reporters. “And so I won’t spend a lot of time worrying about those components, that’s not my charge.”
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said there’s been no discussion with the league about delaying the playoffs or Super Bowl. He was asked what contingency plans exist if the Browns’ outbreak isn’t able to be contained by Sunday.
“We’ve tried to be incredibly flexible all year and you’ve seen some games moved, some games rescheduled,” he said. “The reality of where we are now in the playoffs and given the tighter window, a lot of those contingencies that we would have had in the regular season are things we probably don’t have the same level of contingencies during the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl, which is why we’re stressing it’s going to require an even increased vigilance.”
In his 20th year of eligibility, former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time. The 15 modern-era player finalists were announced Tuesday night.
Matthews played for the Browns from 1978-93 and then finished his career with three seasons with the Falcons. He played in 278 games in 19 seasons and ranks first in NFL history for games played by a linebacker.
He’s the Browns leader in games played (232), seasons (16), sacks (76.5) and sack yardage (568). He led the NFL in tackles three times (1979, 1981, 1984), played in three AFC Championship games and was selected to four Pro Bowls.
He had 16 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries.
The Browns will be down to their fourth option at left guard to face the Steelers.
Top backup Chris Hubbard had season-ending knee surgery Dec. 23, and rookie Nick Harris (knee) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday. Harris made his first start, at right guard, Dec. 27 against the Jets but injured the knee.
Michael Dunn and veteran tackle Kendall Lamm are likely the top options to fill in for Bitonio, who hasn’t missed a snap since the start of the 2017 season. Lamm was inactive Sunday after missing practice all week with an illness.
The Browns also added guards Blake Hance and Cordel Iwuagwu last week. Hance was signed off the Jets’ practice squad and Iwuagwu was signed to the practice squad.
** With Hodge on the COVID list and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones in the concussion protocol, the Browns may have to use a tight end or running back Kareem Hunt as the No. 3 receiver.
The other options are receivers Marvin Hall, Alexander Hollins and practice squader Ja’Marcus Bradley.
Hall was claimed off waivers Dec. 7 and had one catch against the Jets after being forced into a starting role when the top four receivers were on the COVID list as close contacts. That’s been his only action with the team.
Bradley had five catches for 60 yards against the Jets in the same situation.
Hollins was signed off the Vikings’ practice squad last week. He spent 2019 in Minnesota with Stefanski.
** Defensive end Olivier Vernon was placed on IR as expected. His Achilles tendon ruptured Sunday against the Steelers.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be the acting head coach in Stefanski’s absence.
Priefer, who’s a Cleveland native, was interim coach for a game in 2016 when Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer had emergency eye surgery. The Vikings lost 17-15. Priefer said last year he had aspirations of becoming a head coach.
He’s been a special teams coordinator for 15 seasons.
“Obviously I know very little about Coach Priefer in terms of global decision-making as it pertains to being a head coach,” Tomlin said. “But I’m sure that they’re going to disperse many of those responsibilities. Sure, he’ll be the guy acting as head coach on the sideline and making decisions pertaining to challenges and things of that nature. But I imagine behind the scenes that they’re going to disperse Coach Stefanski’s responsibilities.
“So it’s not just Coach Priefer. And so I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about that.”
** Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will take over play-calling duties. He was scheduled to get a shot at the job during the preseason, but the games were canceled.
Tretter is close friends with Bitonio and lined up next to him last week in practice and Sunday in the game. He was asked if he’s worried about getting COVID-19 or being identified as a close contact.
“I’m always concerned about getting sick,” he said. “And it’s something I’ve tried to make every right decision this year both at the facility and away from the facility to avoid that. So concerned definitely. I do not want to get sick.
“I’ll continue to test every day and we’ll just take it day-by-day as we get the results back.”
Tretter wasn’t deemed a close contact of Callahan last week.