Ravens_Browns_Preview_Football_50634

Cleveland Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19 and will not coach the team in its playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Terrance Williams/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns will play their first playoff game since 2002 without first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 just two days after leading the team back to the postseason.

The team announced Stefanski’s positive result on Tuesday – 18 years to the day since the Browns’ last postseason game. Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge also tested positive along with two staff members – tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard.

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be the acting head coach Sunday.

Bitonio and Hodge played in Sunday’s win over the Steelers, who rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other top players to be fresh for the playoffs.

NFL rules state that anyone testing positive must sit out at least 10 days.

League spokesman Brian McCarthy said there is no change to the status of Sunday night’s game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. He added the league is continuing to conduct standard contact tracing to identify any possible high-risk close contacts.

“If any players or personnel are identified as such, they would remain apart from the team and facilities for five days from the last exposure to a positive individual,” McCarthy said in an email to The Associated Press. “They would be eligible to return to the team and play in the game.”

It’s a major blow to the Browns (11-5), who qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons on Sunday with a 24-22 win over Pittsburgh – ending the league’s longest playoff drought. They’ll play the Steelers again this week in the first round of the AFC playoffs.

Cleveland has been hit hard by the virus. The Browns were without six players, including top cornerback Denzel Ward, and three assistant coaches last weekend for their biggest game in years after a rash of positive tests.

On Monday, Stefanski said he didn’t want to get into any “hypotheticals” regarding Ward or any of the other infected players. Now, he’ll only be able to work virtually this week to prepare Cleveland for its first playoff game since Jan. 5, 2003 – a 36-33 loss at Pittsburgh.

• The Browns placed valuable defensive end Olivier Vernon and rookie guard Nick Harris on injured reserve.

Vernon tore his left Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 24-22 win over Pittsburgh and will undergo surgery. His loss is a major one for Cleveland’s defense, which could be missing more players for this week’s playoff game against the Steelers.

Harris, who was pressed into playing a few weeks ago when Chris Hubbard suffered a season-ending knee injury, got hurt in a Dec. 27 loss to the New York Jets.

• WR Rashard Higgins and rookie LT Jedrick Wills were cited for drag racing by police in Westlake, Ohio. According to an incident report and court records, the players were stopped Tuesday morning in the suburb about 10 miles from the team’s headquarters.

The report said a marijuana joint was “found and destroyed.”

It wasn’t immediately known in which vehicle it was found. A team spokesman said the Browns are aware of the incident, “gathering more information and will handle appropriately.”

Wills, who was the No. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft, said on Twitter that people were “Blowing it way out of proportion.” Higgins is in his fifth season with Cleveland. He had two catches for 55 yards on Sunday.

HALL OF FAME: Peyton Manning, no surprise, is among 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2021.

The star quarterback, owner of a record five NFL Most Valuable Player awards and two Super Bowl titles, was the first finalist revealed by the hall on Tuesday night.

Manning, of course, was one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. In 18 pro seasons and 265 starts out of 266 games played since being the top overall draft choice by Indianapolis in 1998, he had 14 seasons with 4,000-plus yards passing.

When he retired following leading Denver to the 2015 league title, Manning held NFL records for career passing yards (71,940), career passing touchdowns (539) and consecutive seasons with at least 25 passing touchdowns (13).

He won 201 of those games, including playoffs, guiding the Colts to the 2006 NFL championship. He also made the Super Bowl for the 2009 and 2013 seasons, was a seven-time All-Pro, and a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s.

Joining Manning as a finalist was one of the players he threw to, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, a finalist for the second time. First-year eligible Calvin Johnson and second-time finalist Torry Holt also made the cut among receivers.

Wayne played in two Super Bowls with Manning.Voting on the entrants to the hall will be conducted later this month, with the inductees announced during Super Bowl week. A maximum of five modern-day players can be chosen, along with three previously announced candidates should they get the required votes: Coach Tom Flores, contributor Bill Nunn and senior Drew Pearson.

Inductions are scheduled for August, when the 2020 class and a special centennial class also will be enshrined after the COVID-19 pandemic forced postponement of those ceremonies last summer.

GIANTS: Defensive coordinator Pat Graham is staying put.

The Giants announced Graham has signed a contract extension to remain as Joe Judge’s defensive coordinator. He is adding the title assistant head coach.

The Giants’ defense improved markedly this past season and Graham reportedly was being considered for the vacant head coaching job with the Jets.

The Giants said Graham has decided not to consider head coaching opportunities for next season.

Graham, who was the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator in 2019, inherited one of the NFL’s worst units. The defense finished the 2020 season ranked 12th overall, including 10th against the run.

Defensive end Leonard Williams had a career year with 11 1/2 sacks. Cornerback James Bradberry gave New York a shutdown cover man, and inside linebacker Blake Martinez was a tackling machine with 151.

Graham worked with Judge as an assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff with the New England Patriots.

PANTHERS: Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady is becoming a popular name for NFL teams looking to fill head coaching vacancies.

A person familiar with the situation says the Chargers, Falcons and Texans have all asked for and received permission from the Panthers to interview Brady for their head coaching jobs.

The 31-year-old Brady was hired by Carolina last season after spending one season as LSU’s passing game coordinator, where he helped the Tigers win a national championship and quarterback Joe Burrow win the Heisman Trophy and become the first pick in the 2020 draft. Brady could be on a meteoric rise up the coaching ranks after just one season as an NFL coordinator.

Carolina finished 21st in the league in offense last season and 24th in scoring. Although running back Christian McCaffrey only played in three games because of injury, four Carolina players went on to have at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage, marking only the fifth team in the Super Bowl era that has happened.

The Panthers finished the season 5-11 and in third place in the NFC South.

DOLPHINS: General Manager Chris Grier gave rookie Tua Tagovailoa a strong endorsement Tuesday, which may tamp down speculation about the team’s draft plans.

Or not. Grier declined to discuss the draft, when Miami has the No. 3 overall pick and could take a quarterback in the first round for the second year in a row.

Grier spoke two days after Tagovailoa’s worst game of the season in a drubbing at Buffalo that cost Miami a playoff berth.

“Tua we’re very happy with,” Grier said. “He’s our starting quarterback. He did a nice job this year coming in as a rookie with no offseason, and the challenges of dealing with all that. We’re very happy with him, and looking forward to watching him progress here with an offseason.”

Tagovailoa will continue to work with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who came out of retirement a year ago and turned 69 Tuesday. Coach Brian Flores said he expects his entire coaching staff to return for the 2021 season.

Flores declined to discuss the likelihood that 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick will return as Miami’s backup quarterback.

FALCONS: Atlanta interviewed Brad Holmes, the Los Angeles Rams’ director of college scouting, for Atlanta’s general manager position.

The Falcons announced they conducted a virtual interview with Holmes. Atlanta is looking to replace Thomas Dimitroff, who along with coach Dan Quinn was fired following a 0-5 start this season. Dimitroff had been the Falcons’ general manager since 2008.

The 41-year-old Holmes has directed the Rams’ scouts for eight years.

The Falcons previously conducted virtual interviews with former Houston Texans GM Rick Smith and Atlanta’s director of college scouting, Anthony Robinson, in their search to replace Dimitroff.

49ERS: Jimmy Garoppolo might be one of the few people not speculating about his future as starting quarterback.

For the second time in three years, an injury derailed Garoppolo’s season, leading to questions about whether the Niners will look to upgrade at the position this offseason either through the draft or by acquiring a veteran.

“I honestly haven’t put too much thought into it,” Garoppolo said. “All those things get said, but at the end of the day, I’m a 49er. I’m here to play quarterback. I’m here to be the quarterback of this team and every day I go out there and try to prove that to my teammates and my coaches. At the end of the day, that’s what really matters.”

Coach Kyle Shanahan said last week that he believed Garoppolo would remain the starter in 2021 and Garoppolo’s teammates have publicly backed him as well, pointing to his leadership and the team’s success when he plays.

General Manager John Lynch said he also expects Garoppolo back despite reports the team could be looking for a change. Garoppolo said that support is what matters.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.