The investigation over allegations from former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe about homophobic comments allegedly made by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is nearly over. Should the investigation bear out in Kluwe’s favor, there is a very good chance that Priefer could be fired despite his excellent track record in Minnesota and an offseason program already in swing.
The public outcry, particularly after a massive public investment in a new stadium that tied the city closer to the team’s operations (fairly or not), would be fairly massive if Priefer remained employed. Adding to that, the Wilfs’ public commitment to marriage equality constrains them in a small way in regards to the situation. Though they may purport to have limited involvement in team operations (and like most good owners, it’s true that they are relatively hands-off), every team has a small stamp of their owner’s character attached to them.
Of course, the Chris Cook incident, along with several other off-field incidents throughout Wilf’s regime (Jerome Simpson being another less notable one) may indicate a hands-off approach when it comes to off-field issues, but that may not be completely analogous. While Cook was a team employee, he was not representing the team or engaging in a team activity. Nor was he purportedly employed to lead people or put in a supervisory position over others.
The greater publicity of this case matters a great deal, too. Football is not insulated from the community at-large, and “football decisions” do not always rule the day. What may be best for the team may not be what the local community prioritizes; there are times when public opinion influences the outcome of a football decision. There’s an interplay with the moral magnitude of the event, the popularity of the stakeholder (Mike Priefer in this case) and the publicity of the event.
While Ray Lewis is perceived to have obstructed justice in a murder investigation (a significant moral magnitude) in a nationally covered affair (enormous publicity), Lewis’ popularity helped insulate him from non-football decisions to kick him off the roster; the Ravens were easily able to evaluate that his Hall-of-Fame level talent was worth it, especially with his popularity.
Sam Hurd did not have the shield of popularity to help him out when he was arrested for his involvement in distributing large amounts of cocaine, being cut two days after the arrest despite the fact that the trial scheduled a month later. Heavy national exposure combined with a heavy moral offense, contributed to his release shortly after the arrest, and he had no such popularity to insulate him from the claims.
Preifer is at a crossroads. Unlike Ray Lewis, he doesn’t have a shield of public popularity, but the alleged moral failing is nowhere near the level of Lewis or Hurd. It is a well-known case, especially in the local media. There is a good chance that a bad report will see him fired.
That could be very significant for the Vikings, who may suffer for the coaching turnover at a position that may turn out to be critical for Minnesota next year.
Often, and simplistically, we hear that special teams are “one third” of the game. Others think that special teams are the most important part of the game, period. In terms of raw yardage, it’s true that a punter can have the biggest impact on field position, but that last claim is a little specious; were one to replace the best punter in the league with the worst punter in the league, most of those yards will still be there.
In all honesty, very few people think that special teams are so important to comprise 33 percent of the game. More importantly, replacing a top-tier special teams unit with a bottom-tier one will probably not change a team’s fortunes by turning a third of their wins into losses (thus making a 9-6 team a 6-9 team).
In order to get a “true” look at the importance of special teams, one could take a look at generic special teams performance and run some tests to see if they correlate with total team performance.
I grabbed twenty years of data (all told, 620 “team-seasons”) and compared them to their SRS score, one of the best ways to determine a teams’ true strength. For evaluating special teams, I used Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Like SRS, it adjusts for opponent.
Over those 620 seasons, there was a correlation of 0.22, and it was significant at the p=0.01 level (and also held up to multiple randomized half-sample tests). This implies that 22% of the team quality score (as represented by SRS) can be explained by their special teams DVOA—for every increase in performance by one percent in DVOA, expect a team to increase their point differential by 0.33 points at the end of the season.
That would also mean that replacing the best special teams unit in a particular season with the worst special teams unit would generally would change SRS by about 5.6 points, or two wins in a sixteen game season. That’s slightly lower than the play-count model of 14 percent found by others and the expected points model found by Drive By Football (where they found it to be 16 percent of wins).
But special teams in 1994 is nothing like special teams today. There are more touchbacks, easier field goals (due to skill increases for the kicker), more downed or unreturnable punts, play-calling restrictions (like the wedge) and so forth. If you look at the past ten years, the correlation comes in at 0.14 (which is still significant with 320 team-seasons)—as opposed to the ten years prior to that, when the correlation was 0.32.
That translates into 0.21 points of SRS, which means the best special teams unit only provided 1.4 wins over the worst unit in the NFL.
Compare that to the difference between the top and bottom offenses or defenses, and it’s truly a small amount—less than ten percent of the game.
Regardless of the model used, special teams play a significant, if relatively minor role and if they are the difference between a win or a loss for a high-flying team (and apocryphally they were worth quite a bit to the 2010 San Diego Chargers, though they were actually not as good as people kept saying they were) they could be the difference between the playoffs and staying home.
But pointing out that special teams are important, if minorly so, is only part of the equation. Parsing out how good an ST coordinator is and how reliably they produce good special teams play are also critical parts of figuring out whether or not the Vikings can weather the loss of Mike Priefer.
If DVOA is a good proxy for special teams play—and given its consistent relationship to point differential, it seems so—then Priefer’s resume is not as stellar as we might like to believe.
Mike Priefer has been a special teams coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings from 2006 to 2013, and in that time has varied wildly in special teams performance. It is true that Percy Harvin turned from one of the top returners in the NFL to one of the top returners in NFL history with Priefer, but isolating that from the rest of the context does us no good in figuring out if Mike Priefer is uniquely talented as a special teams coach.
On average, his special teams units have ranked as the 19th-best unit in the NFL in DVOA. If he deserves credit for turning a 27th-ranked team to a top five unit, he also deserves blame for taking a 13th-ranked unit (the 2006 Chiefs) to the second-worst unit in the league two years later.
Even if you isolate it from things he doesn’t have much control over (say kicking and punting, which is potentially more reliant on talent than scheme—though if we argue that, we can’t give him credit for developing Blair Walsh without blaming him for a small dip in Matt Prater’s performance), and just look at return DVOA and yardage, he doesn’t fare well.
During his tenure, the kick return DVOA of teams he’s been a special teams coach has been slightly better than average (just above 2.0, good for about 13th or so in any given year) and the punt return unit has been almost exactly average. In the years surrounding his tenure (the year before he was a coordinator for that team and the year after), those teams, in aggregate, ranked just slightly below average in both metrics.
In simple yards per return, his units averaged 24.5 yards per kick return and 9.2 yards per punt return. When you look at each of those returners’ seasons outside of the ones they had under Priefer, the average kick return yardage was 22.9 and punt return yardage was 10.2.
In 2013, his yards per return averages would have ranked 16th and 19th, and those returners in aggregate would have ranked 21st and 16th without him.
Generally speaking, it seems like he provides a marginal improvement in the kick return game, but has a nearly inconsequential effect in the punt return game. When looking at individual returners, the story seems to repeat itself. It remains to be seen if Percy Harvin can be as productive of a returner outside of Minnesota, but many returners have had worse careers with Priefer than without.
Kansas City had an All-Pro returner in Dante Hall, but the one year he was with Priefer (2006), he posted his worst kick return average since 2001. After leaving the Chiefs, he went to St. Louis, where his return average promptly rebounded. The Chiefs brought All-Pro kick returner Eddie Drummond from Detroit, and Drummond’s sole year in Kansas City at the age of 27 was his worst.
When Priefer moved to Denver, he had a 26.1 yards-per-return player in Eddie Royal, who then posted an average of 23.9 yards per return before being functionally taken off return duty.
That isn’t the entire story, of course. Percy Harvin improved dramatically under Priefer, and Lorenzo Booker was nearly identical. After leaving Kansas City, their return average was nearly identical with or without Priefer (both Booker and the generic KC return game improved by a tenth of a yard without him, if that).
The point is, without gaudy totals from Percy and Cordarelle—two players that may not qualify because of their otherworldly talent—Priefer looks worse than better.
And just as he was able to identify Blair Walsh as a kicking target and fix his issues coming out of Georgia and improve the kicking game, he did somewhat the opposite (so far) with the punting game; Chris Kluwe was a functionally average punter (his Pro Football Focus score of +9.9 ranks low for his year at 25th, but the score is average for all punter performances in the past five years. His DVOA ranked 12th) and they replaced him with Jeff Locke, who did worse by any number of advanced metrics (ranked 30th of 31 in PFF’s metrics and 17th in FO’s) or in generic ones (both net yards and gross yards per punt dropped with Locke) despite the fact that Locke was the first punter off the board.
This is nothing to say of the high-profile special teams mistakes made by Minnesota’s unit in 2013, which include allowing two fakes (field goal and punt) on the same drive. Special teams involves very little play design and what little control Priefer had over it is massively underwhelming relative to his reputation.
Given the relative insignificance of special teams play (contemporarily closer to ten percent than its historical average around 20 percent), the oversold reputation of Mike Priefer as a coordinator and the small impact he has on the unit overall, replacing Priefer with a below-average special-teams coordinator would not be a huge loss should the investigation turn sour.