CLEVELAND (AP) — Confined to his home before the season’s biggest game, coach Kevin Stefanski vowed not to let COVID-19 stop him from getting the Browns ready for the playoffs.
Stefanski doesn’t know how he contracted the virus. That’s unimportant at this point.
Beating the Pittsburgh Steelers is all that matters.
“We’ve got to find a way,” Stefanski said.
Frustrated and disappointed that he won’t be on the field Sunday in Pittsburgh for the wild-card matchup, Stefanski, who in his first year with Cleveland has the Browns back to the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season, met with reporters over Zoom on Wednesday — a day after testing positive.
Sitting in his office in front of a framed photo of Browns legendary running back Jim Brown battling the Steelers in the 1960s, Stefanski said he’s confident his team will be able to handle the last obstacle in a season full of them.
“They understand that we have a job to do, and they are excited to do that,” he said. “They know that this thing is not stopping for me or anybody so they are full speed ahead.”
Stefanski has preached “next man up” all season to his players, and the same holds true when they’re without their head coach.
“We have established an identity,” he said. “We did it back in the spring. We told the guys how we were going to play. We made sure that we brought players in here that fit that mold, and I think the guys understand perfectly how we play and how we win.
“It does not change, regardless of who is on the sideline.”
Stefanski won’t be able to coach the Browns on Sunday night, and the team will also be without Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, the team’s longest-tenured player who went through seven long seasons for his first taste of the playoffs.
Bitonio tested positive Tuesday along with wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. They’ve joined a long list of players and three other coaches on the reserve/COVID-19 list that’s sure to change.
The Browns did have a good development as starting linebacker B.J. Goodson was activated from the COVID-19 list. The team’s defensive signal-caller missed the past two games after testing positive.
Stefanski said the Browns didn’t have any new positive cases Wednesday, but the team’s training facility remained closed for contact tracing and the team was not able to practice on the field.
For the time being, Stefanski can only work virtually with his team.
The 38-year-old said he feels fine and added that his young family is also healthy. He’s been vigilant in following league protocols and the guidance of medical experts, but he still became infected and his team has been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “We have tried to go above and beyond and tried to do the right things. We are going to continue to do that. Any time where you are trying to follow the rules and you lose guys, it is obviously frustrating.”
Despite the latest disruptions, Stefanski is confident the Browns will push forward this week the same way they have for months.
“The team at every corner has taken on these challenges, whatever it has been,” he said. “We have had weeks where we do not practice very much, and we have had weeks where we were without players or without a coach. That is just the nature of the beast this season.
“It speaks to the team’s resilience that they are going to get their job done no matter what.”
Instead of getting ready for the Steelers on the field Wednesday, the Browns held a virtual walkthrough — not ideal, but not too different in this unique season. Stefanski said the team has not held in-person meetings for months, so this isn’t a shock.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who previously worked with Stefanski in Minnesota, will serve as Cleveland’s acting head coach.
Stefanski said Priefer, a Cleveland native who filled in as head coach for the Vikings for one game in 2017, was an easy choice.
“With Coach Priefer, it always makes sense, the special teams coordinator deals with everybody on the team, coaches every player,” he said. “So I think it’s a very natural place to go in an interim setting there where he can not miss a beat, and then you let the offensive and defensive coaches focus on their side of the ball.
“So, ton of confidence in Coach Priefer, he knows this team very, very well from a roster standpoint, also based on how we play. So I have a full amount of confidence in him.”
NOTES: Stefanski said he addressed the situation involving WR Rashard Higgins and rookie LT Jedrick Wills, who were cited Tuesday for drag racing. A lawyer for the players entered not guilty pleas on their behalf by letter. Police also located a small of marijuana in Higgins’ vehicle. The joint was destroyed and Higgins was given a warning. … Stefanski said WR Donovan Peoples-Jones “is progressing” through concussion protocol. … The team also signed C Anthony Fabiano, who has had two previous stints with the team.
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