Cleveland Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski: ‘We’ve Got To Find A Way’

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Leave it to Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski to minimize the fact that he won’t be on the sidelines Sunday night for his team’s first playoff game in almost 20 years.

Asked during a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday about the importance of his role on game days, not just as the head coach but also the play caller, Stefanski said, “I put my finger on a chart and I read. It’s not very hard.”

The challenge for Stefanski’s team got much harder on Tuesday when Stefanski tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, meaning the Browns will try to win their first playoff game since 1994 without their head coach.

“I’ll be fine. My concern is for our players and coaches and the team going forward,” Stefanski said. “The players understand they have a job to do. They know that this thing (COVID-19) isn’t stopping for me or anyone. So, for the players it’s full speed ahead.”

League rules prohibit Stefanski from having any contact with the team on game day. He has appointed special teams coach Mike Priefer as the acting coach, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will take over Stefanski’s duties as play caller.

“It’s similar to when a player goes down. It’s next man up,” said Stefanski. “Alex has been a huge part of our play calling all year. He knows the things we believe in and how we play. I have a ton of confidence that Alex will get the job done.”

On the selection of Priefer to run the team, Stefanski said, “It makes sense because the special teams guy deals with every player, so we won’t miss a beat. Plus it allows the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator to concentrate on their side of the ball. I have full confidence in Mike Priefer.”

Stefanski’s positive test doesn’t have a major impact on the Browns during the week because all the meetings with players, as well as practices, if need be, are done virtually.

Stefanski said he met with the team virtually on Tuesday, shortly after the team announced his positive test result.

“We reassured everyone that we’ve all got a job to do, and that we’re going to put a plan together to go on the road and play a really good football team,” he said.

What’s most frustrating to Stefanski and the Browns is that the team had made a concerted effort all season to follow all the COVID-19 protocols, only to get clobbered in the last two weeks.

The Browns were without six players, including their top four receivers, plus offensive line coach Bill Callahan and receivers coach Chad O’Shea for their week 16 game, a 23-16 loss to the Jets.

On Tuesday, in addition to Stefanski, Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, the senior member of the Browns in terms of service time, and receiver KhaDarel Hodge both also tested positive, as did tight ends coach Drew Petzing and defensive backs coach Jeff Howard. All four tested positive and will miss Sunday’s game. The Browns currently have 10 players on the COVID-19 reserve list.

“It’s frustrating,” said Stefanski. “We’ve tried to do the right things, and will continue to do the right things, including doubling down on protocol. But anytime you follow the rules and lose guys it’s frustrating.”

How all the losses of all the players and coaches to COVID-19 impacts the Browns’ performance against the Steelers on Sunday remains to be seen, but Stefanski is optimistic.

“We’ve got to find a way. That’s what our charge is,” he said. “This is a team that at every corner has taken every challenge. That speaks to the team’s resilience to get the job done, no matter what.”

Facing the Steelers without their head coach, minus two position coaches, and a handful of other injured players – they are down to their fourth-string left guard – the Browns will face by far their biggest challenge yet, a week after beating the Steelers 24-22 to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

“It’s the same team we played last week,” Stefanski said. “It’s a big game. Win or go home. Just like last week.”

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