Mike Priefer is a mainstay on the Vikings’ coaching staff. He has been the special teams coordinator since 2011 and even served as interim coach when Mike Zimmer’s eye troubles kept him away from the team a couple years ago. Priefer is seemingly held in high regard from most everyone in that facility.
That said, the Vikings’ kicking struggles recently have called Priefer’s job in to question. The Vikings have had problems with the position for about five years now, expecially since Blair Walsh missed a game-winner in the 2015 playoffs. And after Dan Bailey, one of the most accurate kickers in league history, missed two more kicks on Sunday, some in the media are speculating whether Priefer should be on the hot seat.
Because of that, we are going to take a dive into Priefer’s history as a special teams coordinator, exclusively with regard to the kickers. This does not consider his value in coaching coverage units, nor does it consider Chris Kluwe’s allegations from 2014, which led to a suspension and required Priefer to attend sensitivity training. This analysis only covers how kickers have performed with Priefer at the helm.
Note: The PAT percentage in the table below is only considering seasons 2015 and on, as that was when the extra point moved back to the 15-yard-line. Keep in mind, the average PAT percentage during those years was around 94 percent.
Eight of Priefer’s 19 kicker seasons have been above league average. If we only consider kickers who played at least five games, then that brings the total to seven out of 15. So less than half of the time, Priefer has coached a kicker to an above-average season.
How about outlier seasons? On the positive side, three kicker years can be considered exceptional: Matt Prater in 2010, Walsh in 2012 and Kai Forbath in 2016. Forbath’s 2016 was only seven games, however. Negative outliers have to include Dave Rayner and Justin Medlock in 2007, Nick Novak in 2008, Walsh in 2014 and 2016 and Daniel Carlson in 2018. So Priefer’s kickers have more often been exceptionally poor than exceptionally good.
One of those names on the 2007 Chiefs is particularly interesting: Justin Medlock. His is not a name known by many, as he is currently kicking for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL. But in 2007, Medlock was a highly-touted kicking prospect out of UCLA. The Chiefs, with Priefer in charge of the special teams, drafted him in the fifth round. Initially, he competed with Lawrence Tynes for the Kansas City kicking job. Soon enough, the Chiefs traded Tynes and made Medlock the guy. But in his first game, Medlock missed from 30 yards and was released the following week. So Priefer’s hand-picked rookie earned the job and lost it almost immediately, thanks to one poor game.
Justin Medlock and Daniel Carlson represent another worrisome part of Priefer’s history: talent evaluation. Assuming Priefer has a significant voice in the drafting of kickers, his track record in that area is suspect. Three kickers have been drafted by teams where Priefer was special teams coordinator. Only one has made it out of week two that year. Connor Barth, while not drafted, had a solid rookie reason under Priefer. Medlock and Carlson, however, are manifestations of why drafting specialists is a risky business.
That said, Walsh’s rookie year has to get a little extra nod. The line 10 of 10 from 50-plus is astounding and earned him First Team All-Pro as a rookie. That season, Priefer deserves a lot of credit. But several other things strongly ding Priefer’s resume: Walsh’s steady decline over the next few years, the other two rookie seasons and the fact that Prater became one of the best kickers in the league AFTER Priefer left.
This is not an overall condemnation of Priefer’s work as a special teams coach. In just about every other area, he excels. His punters are typically at or above league average in yards per punt. His kick coverage units are consistently among the best in football. No, this is merely to point to Priefer’s track record in a single area. The problem is that the one area is the very thing that has haunted Vikings fans for two decades now.
Is this enough to put Priefer on the hot seat? Hard to say. But it certainly seems like more than circumstantial evidence. Priefer has simply coached far too many sub-par kickers for it to be coincidence. And had Bailey missed the 52-yarder that extended the Vikings’ lead Sunday, we very well could be discussing the career of the now-unemployed Mike Priefer. Alas, Priefer’s job appears safe for the time being. However, fans are focusing the microscope on him more than ever.
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