Stefanski out of basement, back with Browns after COVID-19

Sports

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski looks on from the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Pittsburgh. Positive COVID-19 tests have knocked Stefanski out of Cleveland’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh on Sunday night — the Browns’ first playoff appearance since the 2002 season. (AP Photo/Justin Berl, File)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Browns coach Kevin Stefanski doesn’t plan a trip downstairs to his basement any time soon.

“Those walls were closing in on me,” he said.

Stefanski returned to the team’s facility Thursday, 10 days after the first-year coach tested positive for COVID-19 and he was forced to miss Cleveland’s playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Instead of being on the sideline at Heinz Field, Stefanski was 135 miles away in his Ohio home, where he nervously paced in front of his TV as the Browns built an early 28-0 lead and held for a 48-37 victory — Cleveland’s first in the postseason in 26 years.

Stefanski will make his playoff debut on the sideline this week when the Browns play the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

“It’s great. He deserves to be back,” said special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who filled in as acting coach against the Steelers. “Anytime your leader comes back to the building and he’s going to lead us into battle this weekend, it’s a great thing for our football team.”

There’s plenty of work to be done, but Stefanski, who only had mild symptoms of the virus, was taking a moment to savor the company of his team and staff. He missed everything.

“On a professional level, just being around the coaches and players and then isolating from my family is no fun,” he said with a smile. “I should mention that.”

Stefanski is in his first season with the Browns after spending 13 years as an assistant in Minnesota. The 38-year-old’s steadiness has been credited in the team maneuvering around many issues tied to the pandemic as well as injuries.

“He never panicked at any point along our journey of this season,” linebacker B.J. Goodson said. “He never panicked. He stayed the course, and we are here.”

Until Stefanski arrived, Cleveland hadn’t been in the postseason since the 2002 season.

The Browns are slowly getting healthier.

On Wednesday, top cornerback Denzel Ward and defensive back Kevin Johnson were activated from COVID-19 list and are expected to play against the Chiefs and their potent passing attack.

Wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge was activated Thursday after missing three games.

However, the team still does not have Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, who has been out since testing positive Jan. 5 along with Stefanski and several assistants.

“Getting Joel back, obviously, would be big, and hopefully that’ll be the case,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “We’ll see here later in the week. Joel’s a huge part of our success offensively on that left side and to plug him back in there would be huge for us.”

And while Stefanski was looking forward to getting outside on the practice field, at some point he’s going to have to address something else.

While he was away, Browns backup quarterback Case Keenum hid something in his office.

“He asked if I smelled it yet,” Stefanski said. “But I don’t because I’ve lost my sense of smell.”

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