The NFL door that opened for Doug Colman in 1996 went straight to special teams. He's largely resided there ever since, and he'll do so again in 2020 when he embarks on his second year as the Browns' assistant special teams coach.
Colman, who played five years in the NFL and has been coaching ever since he hung up his shoulder pads in 2001, worked closely with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer throughout the 2019 season, helping guide the group to a number of significant improvements. Like Priefer, though, Colman sees "unfinished business" from a unit that broke in two rookie specialists and didn't get quite what it wanted out of the return game.
"I have a lot of insight of what works and what does not work. Mike has been a great guy to work with and I have learned a lot from him," Colman said. "The guys that we have really bought in last year to what Mike was preaching. I thought we had a really close group of guys. I thought they all bought into the scheme and what we were trying to get accomplished."
The Browns were among the best in the league at covering kicks, ranking fifth in the NFL in average yards allowed per kickoff and sixth overall in kickoff return yards. On punts, the Browns went from 30th in the league to 17th. Cleveland was among the best in the league in tackles inside the 20-yard line and average starting field position after kickoffs.
Still, Colman knows better than anyone about the ever-changing nature of special teams. There's no resting on laurels for an aspect of the team that is always breaking in new faces at new places with the constant churn of the bottom part of the roster.
Colman, a linebacker at Nebraska and member of the famed "Blackshirt Defense" from 1991-95, played for five different NFL teams, including the Browns in 2000. In 1999, he was on the right side of the field for the "Music City Miracle," which propelled the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV. He finished his career with 59 special teams tackles and 31 on defense.
"There has always been, I guess, a level that I can relate to the pressures that they are going under and where they are at at certain times of the year. I have always been pretty good about giving them the feedback that they need to help them where they are at. Some guys are going to take it and some guys do not want to take it. And in the end, the guys that do take it, basically are the ones that end up sticking around.
"There is a platform that I think you have as professional player that guys understand, especially when you have been in that role that they have, and have been the last few guys on that roster and try to make it every year. And to have that edge. Teach them about having an edge about themselves and being able to go out there and understand that hey, every week your job is on the line. It is not just against the guys that you have on your own team. But it is against everybody else in the NFL."
That experience means a lot to Priefer, who values how much Colman can relate to the players who are fighting for their roster spot on every single special teams snap. He also provides a player-minded perspective when the two team up to devise an upcoming plan of attack.
"I didn't play the game at that level, so I love bouncing ideas off him about technique, fundamentals, schemes," Priefer said. "Sometimes I'll bring in Doug and we're game-planning for Cincinnati for example. I'll say 'put yourself in the player's position. What do you think about this scheme? What do you think about me asking you to do this, if that's feasible.
"He'll bring up some really good points that maybe I haven't thought of or think of enough. Just bouncing ideas off a guy that's been out there and played at a high level."
Colman went from the NFL back to high school in 2001 when he returned to his alma mater, Ocean City (N.J.) High School, and coached the freshman team. He was a head coach two years later at Absegami High School (Galloway, N.J.), and his teams quickly picked up a reputation for being abnormally strong in one facet of the game.
"Everybody would say how much time I used to take up on special teams in practice," Colman said. "I said, 'Look, this is one factor that a lot of people do not put a lot of time in.' I said we put in a little more time than everybody else. This is where we can use this as a way to rise above these other teams quicker."
Absegami went on to win the state title in 2006.
Priefer is the fourth special teams coordinator Colman has assisted in his seven NFL seasons as a coach. He feels a strong connection entering a second year together and anticipates building off what they started last year.
"They are going to understand what they are going through and there are some little add-ons that we could do, some little tricks in the tree that actually can help these guys a little bit down the line," Colman said. "There are always things that you pick up after the year.
"We think on the same level as far as our thought process goes with progressional things as we kind of move forward. But there is definitely things that we know that here when we get into our OTAs situation and stuff like that in the offseason meetings and all that, that we can kind of push these guys a little farther ahead and get into a little bit more of an advanced install."
Doug Colman's NFL Playing Background:
1996-98: New York Giants, linebacker
1999: Tennessee Titans, linebacker
2000: Oakland Raiders, linebacker
2000: Cleveland Browns, linebacker
2001: New York Jets, linebacker
Doug Colman's Coaching Background:
2001: Ocean City High School (N.J.), freshman coach
2002: Oakcrest High School (Mays Landing, N.J.), assistant coach
2003-07: Absegami High School (Galloway, N.J.), head coach
2007: Amsterdam Admirals (NFL Europe), linebackers and special teams assistant coach
2008-09: University of Nebraska, defensive quality control coach
2010-11: Tulane University, linebackers, nickels and assistant special teams coach
2012-13: Coastal Carolina University, linebackers coach
2014-17: Houston Texans, assistant special teams coordinator
2018: Dallas Cowboys, assistant special teams coach
2019-: Cleveland Browns, assistant special teams coach