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Browns HC Kevin Stefanski, 2 Coaches and 2 Players Test Positive for COVID-19

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2021

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks on during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players tested positive for COVID-19, the team announced Tuesday.

The team later announced guard Joel Bitonio and receiver KhaDarel Hodge were placed on reserve/COVID-19 list, which is used when a player either tests positive for the virus or is exposed to someone with it. No reason was given for either player.

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will act as the Browns' head coach in Stefanski's absence. If the positive tests are confirmed, Stefanski, the staff members and players will be ineligible for Sunday's AFC Wild Card matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With Stefanski out, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network noted offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will handle play-calling duties. 

Tom Pelissero of NFL Network reported the NFL still currently plans to play the game as scheduled at 8:15 p.m. ET on Sunday. However, that could be subject to change if the Browns' outbreak becomes more pronounced. 

Cleveland had to close its facility three times ahead of last week's game against the Steelers because of positive coronavirus tests. As ESPN's Adam Schefter noted, the Browns have placed 17 players on the COVID-19 list in the past two weeks, with 10 players still remaining on the list:

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Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

Browns have placed 17 players on their COVID-19 Reserve list over the last two weeks; ten of those players still remain on the list, including Joel Bitonio and Khadarel Hodge, who were added today. https://t.co/dJ3UzuriV7

The seeming ongoing nature of the team's spread, along with the fact it includes both players and coaches, could place the game in greater jeopardy.

The NFL has forced teams to play without entire position groups this season during concentrated outbreaks but has tended to delay games where the spread is teamwide. 

The outbreak is nothing short of a crushing blow to the Browns, who reached the postseason for the first time in 18 years.

Cleveland being forced to play without its head coach and other undisclosed players will also call into question the NFL's steadfast refusal to create a postseason bubble. While creating a full-season, 32-team bubble was an unwieldy and likely unrealistic proposition, that number is cut down to 14 teams for the playoffs—a far more manageable number.

The league could have even sequestered teams into AFC and NFC hub cities to further limit the numbers. The No. 1 seed in both conferences would have then received an unprecedented two-week bye, but it would seemingly be a better solution to an unprecedented problem than moving forward as if things are normal.

As it stands, the Browns will likely be at a heavy competitive disadvantage Sunday. The NFL is risking compromising the integrity of its season, particularly if a preventable outbreak—bubbles have worked in every other major professional sport—winds up affecting conference championships or the Super Bowl. 

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