Mike Priefer turned the corner into a thick, wide wall of reporters and a postgame spotlight well-suited for the special teams coordinator on just the fifth team in NFL history to block and return two punts for touchdowns in the same game.
“That,” said Priefer, “was pretty cool.”
Getting last week’s game ball from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and then using the winning locker room as a backdrop to celebrate his players for believing in themselves and the program was the kind of signature moment Priefer has been rebuilding toward since about 10:14 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 15.
At that moment three months ago, Priefer wasn’t sure what to expect. He took another breath and paused. His anti-gay comment to then-Vikings punter Chris Kluwe in 2012 had been thoroughly investigated, viciously debated by the public, legally settled with Kluwe, addressed and buried by Priefer and, finally, punished by the team. Now it was time for Priefer to step to the podium and lead his first special teams meeting since serving a two-game suspension and completing sensitivity training.
Forty players looked back at Priefer from the makeshift meeting room in the corner of the team’s indoor facility that day. And every one of them stood and cheered before the first word left Priefer’s mouth.
“I had to start talking or start crying,” Priefer said. “It just meant a lot to me because they know who I am. They know the real Mike Priefer.
“And you can’t fool these young men. They’re too smart. They’re too aware. I don’t think I receive that reception when I got back if they don’t believe in who I am. I think that was enough said right there. That’s all the public needs to know right there.”
Long-snapper Cullen Loeffler said the standing ovation wasn’t something anyone talked about beforehand.
“It was totally spontaneous,” he said. “Everyone here feels the same way about Coach Priefer. I can’t say enough good things about him as a coach and as a man.”
The Vikings’ decision to retain Priefer through Leslie Frazier’s firing and the seven-month fallout from the Kluwe accusations was rooted in the organization’s admiration of Priefer’s character. But, in a bottom-line business, his continued employment and the hassle that came with it was entirely dependent on a stronger belief that his talent as a coach can affect the outcome of games.
Well, last week, Priefer spotted and attacked subtle weaknesses in Carolina’s punt protection. The results were historic. Eleven weeks before that, he was at home watching on television as his replacement, interim special teams coordinator Joe Marciano, coached against the Patriots.
In that game, a special teams blunder — a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown right before halftime — shifted the momentum permanently in a 30-7 loss. The Vikings also executed a punt return using only nine players.
“Not to say anything bad about the guy who was here,” receiver Jarius Wright said. “But he’s no Mike Priefer. We need Mike Priefer.”
Serving his country
Priefer said he was 5 years old when he told his father, Chuck, a longtime NFL special teams coach, that he wanted to “impact lives” as a football coach.
“It’s in my blood,” Priefer said. “I thank God every day for my job.”
At 15, Priefer, a Civil War buff, read Bruce Catton’s “Army of the Potomac Trilogy” and fell in love with the military. He visited and applied to West Point and Annapolis before choosing the Naval Academy, graduating and serving eight years.
From 1990 to ’94, Priefer was a naval officer who flew helicopters that specialized in anti-submarine warfare and search-and-rescue missions with Navy SEALs. He took missions to the Persian Gulf the year after the Gulf War, the Adriatic Sea and Somalia six months after the “Black Hawk Down” encounter left two helicopters shot down.
He also married Debbie, although he spent 10 of their first 18 months of marriage serving overseas.
“The people who were saying things about my character, they don’t know me,” Priefer said. “They don’t know what I’ve been through. They don’t know about my service to my country. They don’t know who I am as a man. They didn’t talk to the players. They didn’t talk to other coaches that I coached with.
“So what people were saying about me that don’t know me didn’t bother me. It bothered my family, unfortunately. I think they went through a lot. That was the tough part for me, to see my wife and four children go through that. But I knew I’d be strong enough because of my faith in God and myself and my family and the support that I’ve received from this organization. I knew it would work out.”
‘It’s between his brain’
Entering last week’s game, the Vikings had gone a league-high 453 consecutive games dating to 1986 without returning a blocked punt for a touchdown. Yet no one involved in last week’s effort sounds surprised that they joined the 1975 Lions as the only teams in NFL history to do it twice in one half.
“Coach Priefer is always pointing out things that are going to happen,” said fullback Jerome Felton. “Before we played Green Bay last year, he kept saying we’d have a long kickoff return. Opening kickoff, Cordarrelle [Patterson] takes it 109 yards, an NFL record. Prief is a great teacher who understands schemes better than anybody I’ve ever been around.
“Against the Panthers, he noticed their punt team’s depth just wasn’t right. Sure enough, he was right.”
The first block against the Panthers was only a three-man rush, but it was focused between the two guard-center gaps. When Adam Thielen and Andrew Sendejo both came free, the fullback chose to block Sendejo while Thielen notched his first NFL touchdown.
The second block was an eight-man rush but was executed by the base defense personnel. Jasper Brinkley came free on an overload to the punt team’s far right side.
“For Coach Priefer, it’s all between his brain,” Brinkley said. “He’s smart with this stuff.”
Three weeks ago, Priefer called the team’s first fake punt in 10 years. Sendejo took a handoff from Thielen and went a franchise-record 48 yards.
A year ago, Patterson and Marcus Sherels set the franchise season records for kickoff and punt return averages, respectively. Neither has gotten on track this year, yet the Vikings still rank fourth in average starting point after kickoffs and have a better punt return average (9.5) than their opponents (7.1).
Meanwhile, many forget that Blair Walsh was a 60 percent kicker his senior year at Georgia. That’s probably because he’s an 88.2 percent kicker as a pro, including 81 percent (17 of 21) from 50 yards and beyond.
As for punter, where Jeff Locke replaced Kluwe in an organizational decision last season, Priefer admits the youngster needs to be more consistent despite facing tougher weather conditions outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium. Yet, surprisingly, Locke’s career net average of 38.9 yards ranks No. 1 in franchise history among players with at least 100 punts.
“A lot of people don’t like coaching special teams because there’s no glory in it,” Priefer said. “It’s hard. It’s tough. You lose a linebacker during the game and that’s five pieces you have to move around. I love the challenge.
“Until I have the opportunity, maybe someday, to be a head coach, I don’t want to coach anything else.”
Head coaching an option?
Before last season, Priefer interviewed for the Bears head coaching job that went to Marc Trestman. The question going forward — especially at a time when the Vikings are drawing positive attention to their special teams — is whether the fallout from the Kluwe investigation will deter future interest.
“I’d feel bad for Coach Prief if that’s the case because I look at a John Harbaugh in Baltimore and how he was a special teams coach who became a successful head coach,” Felton said. “I truly believe Prief would be a great head coach someday.”
Ever the optimist, Priefer said his sensitivity training — or “leadership” training as he prefers to call it — was the positive aspect that he assured his father would come out of this.
“I was able to talk about certain situations that we, as leaders, are put in,” Priefer said. “I learned a hard lesson that I’m a supervisor, I’m a leader. I shouldn’t make silly comments. Maybe I just have to handle things the right way, with class.”
And if he doesn’t get a head coaching opportunity, well, that’s OK, too, Priefer said.
“I am a better man because of this,” he said. “I’m not a victim. I mean, c’mon. I don’t have cancer. I didn’t lose my job. I have my health, a beautiful wife, four terrific kids. I got a phenomenal job, a great head coach, a great owner, a great general manager, outstanding players.
“And I’m not a woe-is-me type of guy anyway. I’m positive, high-energy, high work ethic and let’s go forward.”