The Browns have been working 18 years to get back in the playoffs. They won't have their head coach or have completed a full week of practice when they finally take the field Sunday night.
Cleveland announced Tuesday that Kevin Stefanski was among five members of the organization to test positive for COVID-19. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported three-time Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, who has been with the team since 2014, and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge also tested positive. The team later placed both on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The two other positive results involved coaches.
The entire group will miss Sunday's wild-card game between the Browns and Steelers, which remains on as scheduled, Pelissero added.
"The Cleveland Browns were informed this morning that Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players have tested positive for COVID-19," the team said in a statement. "Our facility is currently closed while contact tracing is taking place. The team will continue to consult with the league and medical experts to determine the appropriate next steps as the health and safety of our players, coaches, staff and the entire community remains our highest priority. Our contingency planning calls for Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as the acting Head Coach."
Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who called plays in training camp and was supposed to call them at times in a preseason that never occurred, will be the offensive play-caller against Pittsburgh, NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported.
Without Stefanski on the sidelines this weekend, the Browns lose the Coach of the Year candidate who led Cleveland to an 11-5 mark in just his first season. It was the Browns' first winning record since 2007 and a five-game improvement over last year's squad, which featured much of the same nucleus. The Stefanski-led offense made the biggest strides.
His absence could also alter Pittsburgh's preparation a bit.
"Obviously I know very little about Mike Priefer about global decision-making in terms of being a head coach," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Tomlin and Stefanski were shown speaking before last week's meeting between the two teams, but Tomlin is in the clear after contact tracing, Pelissero added.
Tuesday's rash of positive tests marks the third consecutive week Cleveland will be compromised by COVID. Two weeks ago, the Browns played without their starting wide receivers after they were exposed to linebacker B.J. Goodson near the team's recovery pool. More positives sidelined a handful of players, including cornerback Denzel Ward, for the regular-season finale.
"We have more work to do tracing and figuring out where the virus is coming from and how to move forward," Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter said on an NFLPA Zoom call Tuesday, per CBS Sports. "We don't have all those answers yet. It's still fairly early in the day." Tretter added he expects the team's facility to be closed Wednesday, as well.
NFL medical experts believe last week's COVID-19 cases were from community spread and not a facility outbreak, as genomic sequencing showed three different strains of virus, Pelissero reported. The Browns also did not have any positive tests Sunday and Monday.