The process of hiring a new head coach has begun for the Vikings and now the focus is not only on who the new head coach will be but what will happen to the assistant coaches that technically are still part of the Vikings coaching roster.
It seems clear that, given the poor defensive performance the Vikings put in last year – finishing 31st in total defense and coming precariously close to setting a franchise record for points allowed – defensive coordinator Alan Williams will be gone. The same is expected for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, whose offense sputtered at critical times late in games. But what about special teams coordinator Mike Priefer?
To ask those who work closest with Priefer, they're convinced not only should be Priefer be retained, but he should be in consideration for the head coaching job.
"Coach Priefer is an excellent coach," kicker Blair Walsh said. "I think his track record here speaks for itself. I think it would be a shame if he doesn't come back because he's always had our full support and I think the production from special teams has been excellent."
While special teams coordinators are viewed as primarily dealing with kickers and punters, long snapper Cullen Loeffler said that few coaches have as good a gauge of the talents of the roster, especially the back end of the roster, as Priefer.
"Coach Priefer works with a lot of the guys on coverage teams," Loeffler said. "Most coaches specialize to specific players, whether its offense or defense, running backs or linebackers or quarterbacks. Because we have players from both sides of the ball on special teams, there aren't many players on the team that don't work with Prief in one way or another. I think he knows this roster as well as anybody."
Football is a results-oriented game and, based on results, the Vikings special teams were as good as just about any in the league. Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels were at or near the top of the return charts all season and it was Patterson's explosiveness in the return game that opened the door for him to get more opportunities on the offensive side of the ball.
Priefer came to the Vikings with a solid reputation after coaching special teams in Kansas City and Denver and had a history of developing players that became the strength of their special teams. When he joined the Vikings in 2011, they had one of the worst coverage units in the game, allowing games to slip away from them thanks to big returns in the punt and kickoff game. That has largely changed since he arrived in Minnesota and has solidified what was a clearly defined team weakness.
"We used to struggle a lot in coverage," Loeffler said. "He came in and got everyone on the same page. He has always spent extra time with guys to show them what they need to do and where they make mistakes in coverage, whether the other team takes advantage or not. He's a perfectionist in what he does and I think that has carried over to all of us. We all take pride in doing our job at a high level and that begins with Prief."
Priefer's job was made a little more difficult because of the transition at key special teams spots. In the last two years, he had to replace his kicker (Ryan Longwell), his punter (Chris Kluwe) and his kickoff return specialist (Percy Harvin). He was able to accomplish that almost seamlessly. Walsh made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and set the all-time NFL record for field goals of 50 yards or more in a season. Jeff Locke replaced Kluwe at punter and there wasn't a drop-off in production, hang time or pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Patterson became the most electrifying return man in the NFL as a rookie and was more than a capable replacement for Harvin.
Locke had some early struggles adjusting to the NFL, but claimed Priefer was critical to his improvement.
"He coaches with a lot of intensity, but he really cares about the players," Locke said. "He worked with me individually on getting more consistency from one punt to the next and he was patient with me when I had some struggles early on. I think I got a lot more consistent as the year went along and I think that had a lot to do with Coach Priefer. He kept challenging us to be mistake-free and it had a big impact on me. I think that message got through to everybody and it all came together for us."
While Priefer is clearly a long shot to get the promotion from special teams coordinator to head coach, it has been done. Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was the special teams coach in Philadelphia before making the jump and he won a Super Bowl last year. It can be done, but it takes a special personality to handle the players and Priefer has that it factor, according to the players he works with most.
"If any special teams coach could make it as a head coach, I think it would be Prief," Loeffler said. "I would put him up against any special teams coordinator in the league and, when you're the best at what you do, that's what leads to promotions. It wouldn't surprise me if he got a job as a head coach somewhere because he gets results and this is a results-oriented business."
The future of the Vikings assistant coaches will remain up in the air until the Vikings make a decision on a head coach. While Priefer likely won't get a legitimate shot to land the job himself, one thing is certain: When the Vikings begin the preparation for the 2014 season, those who work closest with Priefer want him back.
"My position is that I think they would be crazy to hire another special teams coach," Walsh said. "He's the man for the job. He's proven that time and time again. I think they we helped our team with special teams with help in making that decision."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Specialists vouch for Priefer's credentials
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