Sunday is a bittersweet day for Browns fans.
While Cleveland faithful can revel in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since Kelly Holcomb donned the brown and orange in 2003, the team faces a steep, uphill climb as they take on the Steelers on Sunday night. Not only because Cleveland faces off against division-rival Pittsburgh for a third time this season, but because they’ll be without several coaches and players heading into the wild-card matchup.
Earlier last week, head coach Kevin Stefanski was one among several Browns players and personnel to test positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19), leaving them out
The Browns have had several brushes with COVID-19 this season, including a scare with quarterback Baker Mayfield earlier in the season: Mayfield landed on the Cleveland COVID-19 list after coming in close contact with another member of the Browns who had tested positive, but never tested positive for the virus himself.
Now, heading into their first playoff appearance in nearly two decades, the Browns have a more than tough task ahead of them.
Browns COVID-19 list
The outbreak in Cleveland, which started nearly three weeks ago now, has run through the active roster and, reaching the coaching ranks the week of Jan. 3. While some players were activated from the COVID-19 list on Saturday, there’s still a bevvy of players and coaches away from the field come Sunday.
Players — and coaches — inactive for Sunday:
- Head coach Kevin Stefanski
- Tight ends coach Drew Perzlig
- Defensive backs coach Jeff Howard
- Offensive line coach Bill Callahan
- Assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters
- Offensive lineman Joe Bitonio
- Defensive back Denzel Ward
- Defensive back Kevin Johnson
- Wider receiver KhaDarel Hodges
Tight end Harrison Bryant, safety Ronnie Harrison and linebacker Malcolm Smith, who were placed on the COVID-19 list recently, were all activated from the COVID-19/reserve list on Saturday, allowing them to play in Sunday’s game.
How did the Browns outbreak start?
While there was no reported genesis, meeting or clear breach of NFL’s coronavirus protocols, in December, several Browns players were placed on the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list ahead of their matchup with the Jets: wide receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and Donovan Peoples-Jones, and linebackers BJ Goodson and Jacob Phillips also landed on the list. The game would be played as scheduled, and the Browns would lose 23-16 to New York.
Ahead of Cleveland’s Week 17 matchup vs. Pittsburgh, Landry, Higgin and Peoples-Jones were activated, while Hodge remained on the list. They were delivered more bad news, though: safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph would land on the COVID-19 list, alongside tight end Harrison Bryant.
The team would close its facility on Dec. 30 to allow for the NFL to conduct its contact tracing policy, eventually reopening the same day.
Cleveland would surprise Pittsburgh in Week 17, earning a win and a playoff berth, but would be dealt bad news following the win, with head coach Kevin Stefanski and other coaches testing positive for COVID-19, leaving Cleveland’s playoff hopes in the hands of Browns special teams coach Mike Priefer, who is the acting head coach on Sunday.
Recent Browns tests have all returned negative, meaning all systems are go for Sunday’s playoff matchup with the Steelers.
“While we are continuing to monitor, there’s been no indication of a spread among the team facility,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. “This is based on contact tracing and also genomic sequencing that has been conducted to date.”
Should the Browns advance, Stefanski and others are expected to make their return in the divisional round.