Mike Priefer got the Browns special teams units collectively headed in the right direction in a much-improved 2019 campaign.
It just didn't meet the standard he expects as a longtime special teams coordinator.
"We have some work to do, some unfinished business," Priefer said. "That's what the opportunity to come back is going to provide for us to do, to finish that business."
Priefer and assistant special teams coach Doug Colman are back for a second season in Cleveland, joining run game coordinator/running backs coach Stump Mitchell as the three retained coaches from the 2019 staff. Priefer, who grew up in Cleveland, wanted to return no matter who was hired as head coach. That the Browns went with Kevin Stefanski, whom he coached alongside from 2011-18 in Minnesota, made coming back even more rewarding for Priefer, who is entering his 15th consecutive season as an NFL special teams coordinator.
"I've seen him grow as a coach from being a quality control coach to being a running backs, tight ends, quarterbacks and then offensive coordinator. I've seen his growth," Priefer said. "I knew from the get-go he was going to be a very good coach as he kind of gained experience. Obviously he had that head coaching mentality about him. He's got that charisma about him, he's got leadership and he's going to do a great job for us here."
Cleveland's special teams made significant improvements in nearly every facet of the game under Priefer's watch in 2019.
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.
The improvements stemmed from the strong directional kicking of rookie Austin Seibert, better tackling from core players such as KhaDarel Hodge, Tavierre Thomas and Tae Davis and a significant decrease in penalties. The Browns went from one of the most penalized special teams units in 2018 to middle of the pack in 2019.
"There's a lot of improvements in a lot of different areas if we continue to bring young men in here that love the game of football and like playing special teams," Priefer said. "There's unique people who play that. You have to have something wrong with you if you're going to go cover a kickoff or punt and people say you have to have something wrong with you if you're going to coach special teams, so it goes hand in hand. I'm excited about our future."
Priefer had both the present and future in mind when he entered the 2019 season with rookies at both punter and kicker. Both Seibert and Jamie Gillan proved worthy of their selections to the 53-man roster and finished the season on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.
Gillan, an undrafted free agent who hails from Scotland, was named the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Month in September and set the Browns' single-season record for net punting (41.6 average). He finished tied for fifth in team history with 28 punts placed inside the 20-yard line and had just five of his 63 punts go for touchbacks.
Seibert, a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma, made 25-of-29 field goals, set a Browns rookie scoring record with 105 points and opened his career with 16 consecutive makes, a streak that ranked fourth in NFL history.
"They will get better," Priefer said. "The thing I've told them is they've made a big mistake. You have proved you can do it and now we're going to expect you to do it more often and be more consistent and be more productive. We left some points on the field with Austin and we left some big plays on the field with our punter.
"The good thing is they've made enough plays to encourage you to say, you know what, they can do it. It's there. It's in them. Now we've got to continue to improve our technique, be more consistent and be a more productive unit across the board."
Priefer expects to see improvements on kick return and punt return in 2020. The Browns ranked 16th in the NFL on punt returns and 20th on kickoffs. Cleveland used four different returners on both punts and kicks.
"At the end of the day, I think we need to hold up better, hold up on punt return better, protect with our drops better on kickoff return," Priefer said. "We have to have more production from our returners. We left some yards on the table, whether it was not hitting the seam right or going down too easy on an arm tackle. Those are the areas we want to improve on."
Stefanski knows from experience to expect Priefer to meet his goals in 2020 and beyond.
While they coached together in Minnesota, Priefer's unit led the NFL with 14 special teams touchdowns. The team scored on seven kickoff returns, five punt returns and two touchdowns off blocked punts. The Vikings led the NFL in kickoff return average in 2015 (28.3) and 2016 (27.3) and finished second in 2011 (27.2). His units also led the league in punt return average in 2013 (15.2) and finished second in the league in total kick return yards in 2014 (1,981) and 2015 (1,540).
"It's been awesome to be back with Coach Prief," Stefanski said. "He's somebody on a personal level I have a great deal of respect for. Great family man. I couldn't be more thrilled to be back in the fray with him. I've seen him coach. I've seen his units play really well. It's exciting to be back around Coach Prief."
Mike Priefer's Coaching Background:
1994-96: U.S. Naval Academy, graduate assistant
1997-98: Youngstown State University, offensive tackles/tight ends/special teams
1999: Virginia Military Institute, inside linebackers/special teams
2000-01: Northern Illinois University, defensive tackles/special teams
2002: Jacksonville Jaguars, assistant special teams
2003-05: New York Giants, assistant special teams
2006-08: Kansas City Chiefs, special teams coordinator
2009-10: Denver Broncos, special teams coordinator
2011-18: Minnesota Vikings, special teams coordinator
2019-: Cleveland Browns, special teams coordinator