Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of change on the roster of the Minnesota Vikings.
Mike Zimmer has transformed the Vikings defense. Norv Turner’s fingerprints are all over the offense. But what about the special teams? Specifically, what about the kickers?
It seemed obvious that the special teams was going to have continuity at a time when every offensive and defensive player was put on notice that, with a new coaching regime, changes are inevitable. All you can do is hope that someone in power likes you.
Clearly, the organization has been happy with the work special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is doing.
Priefer has a pretty consistent life as a coordinator – if there is such a thing as continuity or consistency as a special teams coach.
In a game based on structure and familiarity, special teams is a wild card that changes from week to week. Zimmer and George Edwards know who their personnel will be heading into every game. Turner is the same. Priefer? That’s another story.
The back-end roster decisions teams make are often based upon special teams ability. If Zimmer has his way (and he typically does), there will be competition for the spot that is almost surely going to open up after the 2016 season for Chad Greenway’s starting spot. Those players may not see a lot of on-field time with the defense this year, but they will with the special teams.
In the event of injury to starters, those same players are now short-term stopgaps in the defensive game plan. More times than not, they become unavailable to the special teams unit because depth has been sliced to point of creating a hole that other teams can exploit – see the safety depth issues in the Arizona and Seattle games last year.
There are only three players that are constants on the special teams – the kicker, the punter and the long snapper.
When things are going well, all three are together for long stretches of time. That isn’t unusual, because, in a coaching job that is constantly in personnel flux, players you covet as part of your unit may be needed more by either the offensive or defensive coaching staff.
When Priefer joined the Vikings coaching staff in 2011 under head coach Leslie Frazier, he had a veteran group of the three constants on special teams – kicker Ryan Longwell, punter Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler.
In 2012, Longwell was gone. One year and one election cycle later, Kluwe was gone. Two years later, Loeffler rode into the sunset based on a radar gun – Kevin McDermott could spin it as accurately and in the neighborhood of two-tenths of a second faster. In a gunslinger occupation, Kevin the Kid put his gun back in his holster.
In the span of four years, Priefer not only survived a coaching change. He lost all three of his constants.
Longwell was known for deadly accuracy, but long kickoffs weren’t his forte and the Vikings didn’t have the luxury of a punter/kickoff specialist like Mitch Berger. They had Kluwe, who doubled as a holder, not a kickoff guy. The Vikings were pot-committed to having one roster spot for a kicker. The new regime valued someone who could kick off out of the end zone. Being accurate wasn’t the sole focus, but it was truly a bonus.
Blair Walsh came to Minnesota armed with a leg that was designed to strike an oblong ball with furious anger. The special teams philosophy became to take the approach of, if you want to return a kickoff from nine yards deep with 10 guys picking up speed while you make that decision, have at it, Hoss.
Walsh spoiled fans with a rookie season that set records for long-distance field goals.
In 2014, Walsh was the lowest rated kicker in the NFL with enough attempts to qualify. He wasn’t making a big impression on the new generals.
His 2015 preseason was dismal, lending to some speculation that, had there been any training camp competition, he could have been in trouble. The coaches put it on Priefer to make good on expectations.
Until his last kick, there was no complaint about Walsh.
Punter Jeff Locke has been similarly criticized for his rankings among other punters. Just hit up Kluwe on Twitter and he’ll let you know.
As far as the hard numbers that analytics types will promulgate, Locke was 32nd of 32 in average punt length.
Even being left-footed, it is difficult to overcome being last – the second time in two years that one of the Vikings’ two specialist finished at the bottom of any compiled list of players at their position.
The Vikings learned the hard way last season that precision in putting the “foot” in football was critically important to winning and losing. As things stand now, there may be a couple of roster spots won or lost for special teams acumen. A linebacker. A safety. An offensive lineman. A wide receiver. The Turk’s cut is unforgiving.
There will be plenty of competition for those precious few roster spots available. The right selection could make the special teams dominant, simply by keeping a linebacker with promise over an offensive lineman who is on the bubble for a reason.
Of the three known variables – Walsh, Locke and McDermott – all three are unchallenged on the 90-man roster.
Priefer has survived a rollover of his Core Three. He survived a coaching change. He knows what he’s doing. He has vouched for his guys.
In a year where failure is becoming a less tenable option, those putting foot to ball may well be on notice for the first time since Zimmer rolled into town.
If the Vikings are going to reach the goals they’re setting for themselves coming off a division title, the special teams will need to be special for them to achieve their ultimate goal – and accountability will be heightened like never before.