By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Pro Football Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The Cleveland Browns got their coach back on the sideline. The New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles might be without theirs this weekend.
The Buffalo Bills will be without wide receiver Cole Beasley, who has been among the NFL’s most outspoken critics of vaccinations.
Browns second-year coach Kevin Stefanski cleared COVID-19 protocols Wednesday and returned to the team after missing Monday’s 16-14 home loss to Las Vegas. Stefanski also sat out the Browns’ playoff win at Pittsburgh last season after testing positive.
“Good to be back,” Stefanski told reporters on a Zoom call from the team’s Berea, Ohio, facility. “Obviously, working remotely is something that we all did a bunch of last year so it is definitely doable to work remotely, game plan remotely, run meetings, etc., but good to be back in person.”
Meanwhile, the Jets’ Robert Saleh and Eagles’ Nick Sirianni tested positive for COVID-19 after feeling symptoms in the morning.
For New York, it’s the latest in what has been a surge of coronavirus cases on the team. Tight ends coach Ron Middleton coached practice in Saleh’s absence after finding out about 45 minutes before that the head coach wouldn’t be able to run the session. Saleh, who plans to continue running team meetings virtually, could return as soon as Thursday if he no longer shows symptoms and tests negative.
If Saleh doesn’t test out of the COVID-19 protocols before Sunday, Middleton will also serve as the head coach in New York’s game against Jacksonville.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” Middleton said during a video call. “I’m trying to steer the ship, keep the ship steered in the right direction.”
Sirianni also tested positive after feeling symptoms. He’s isolating at a hotel and pass game coordinator Kevin Patullo would handle coaching duties if Sirianni doesn’t clear protocols in time for Sunday’s game against the Giants.
“I’m feeling OK,” said Sirianni, who was on the sideline for Philadelphia’s win over Washington on Tuesday night. “I’m feeling a little bit better now, which is good. The rest of the week, I’ll be in every meeting, obviously virtually. … I’ll be running those. Just business as usual.”
The Jets have 17 players from the active and practice squad rosters, including injured reserve, on the COVID-19 list: wide receivers Elijah Moore, Jeff Smith and Vyncint Smith; tight end Kenny Yeboah; guard Alijah Vera-Tucker; defensive linemen Folorunso Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers, Jonathan Marshall and Tanzel Smart; linebackers Blake Cashman, Noah Dawkins and Hamsah Nasirildeen; cornerbacks Michael Carter II and Lamar Jackson; safeties Ashtyn Davis and Sharrod Neasman; and special teams ace Justin Hardee.
“It’s crazy,” left tackle George Fant said. “You see other teams get hit with it. I guess it’s our turn.”
Now that they’ve got their coach back, the Browns hope more players return as they get ready on a short week for a Christmas visit to the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers (11-3). The Browns are on the fringe of the playoff picture.
The Browns were rocked by the virus last week, when an outbreak led to 22 players missing the rescheduled game. Quarterback Baker Mayfield still hasn’t produced a required negative test and his status at Green Bay is unclear.
Browns tight end Austin Hooper and linebacker Jacob Phillips also returned, but starting rookie cornerback Greg Newsome was added to the COVID-19 list. He has missed the past two games with a concussion.
Stefanski said players who tested positive before Dec. 15 will be eligible to play Saturday – the conclusion of their 10-day window – so long as they’re asymptomatic. That would include Mayfield and backup QB Case Keenum. Third-stringer Nick Mullens and played well in his first start since last season with San Francisco.
Bills coach Sean McDermott fully favors vaccinations, but declined to weigh in on Beasley being sidelined at New England after testing positive for COVID-19.
“The facts are the facts,” McDermott said, regarding the efficacy of vaccinations before adding he respects the decisions his players make.
Beasley will not play because he is unvaccinated and will have to miss a minimum 10 days after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday.
In notes posted on his Instagram account, Beasley said he is experiencing mild symptoms. He then placed the blame on the NFL’s protocols by writing: “Just to be clear, Covid is not keeping me out of this game. The rules are.”
Actually, COVID-19 is preventing him from playing because he tested positive. Under newly adopted rules, vaccinated players can return over a shorter period based on testing results.
At issue for the receiver is vaccinated players are just as likely to have COVID-19 while being allowed to play because they are only tested once a week, as opposed to unvaccinated players being tested daily. The rules also state unvaccinated players testing positive will have to spend at least 10 days in the protocol. That puts him in jeopardy of potentially missing two games because of a lack of practice time.
Buffalo currently has seven players on the COVID-19 list, including starting left tackle Dion Dawkins and right guard Jon Feliciano, both of whom are believed to be vaccinated.
— Brandin Cooks, who leads the team with 945 yards receiving, and kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn were among three players the Houston Texans placed on the COVID-19 list, bringing their total to 16 players.
Reserve linebacker Eric Wilson was also added as the Texans prepare to host the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
The Texans will likely have to sign a kicker to fill in for Fairbairn; they don’t have another one on the roster or practice squad. Safety Justin Reid, a high school kicker, handled kickoff duties in a preseason game this season when Fairbairn was injured. But Reid missed last week’s game with a concussion and it’s unclear if he will be available Sunday.
— The Chargers added standout running back Austin Ekeler and receiver Jaylen Guyton to the list, but coach Brandon Staley was optimistic both can return to play Sunday against Houston.
Ekeler is the Chargers’ leading rusher and third-leading receiver, while Guyton has been a big-play threat, catching a TD pass in three straight games while racking up 187 yards on just nine catches.
— Baltimore put five players on the list: safety Geno Stone, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, linebacker Chris Board, linebacker Kristian Welch and practice squad tackle David Sharpe. That brings the number of players on that list to 15, including four from the practice squad. The Ravens play at Cincinnati on Sunday with first place in the AFC North on the line.
— Pittsburgh placed linebackers Devin Bush and Marcus Allen and offensive tackle Zach Banner on the COVID-19 list on Wednesday.
— The Colts placed starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and backup defensive end Kemoko Turay on the list, along with tight end Farrod Green of the practice squad.
— Seattle tight end Will Dissly went on the list. Running back Alex Collins was activated off the list that he went on last Thursday.
— Tennessee placed starting left guard Rodger Saffold on the COVID-19 list. He’s the third Titans player on that list, joining wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick and cornerback Elijah Molden.
— Veteran punter Andy Lee was added to the COVID-19 list by Arizona.
AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Teresa M. Walker and Sports Writers Greg Beacham, Will Graves, Mike Marot, Kristie Rieken, John Wawrow and Tom Withers contributed.
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