BEREA — The coaches knew the risk of allowing receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to return a punt — his first of the season — with 7:17 left in a game the Browns trailed 28-3. One of the team’s best players could get hurt performing a secondary role in a game that was out of hand.
“I think it’s worth it because you’re trying to provide a spark, not only for your team in that game, but going forward and getting them to believe in what we’re trying to do as a return unit against Seattle, against New England, against Denver,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Thursday. “We have to build a foundation and you don’t just build a foundation by going out there and quitting with 7 1/2 minutes to go. That’s not who I am, that’s not who our guys are, we’re going to go out there and try to make a play every single opportunity we have, I don’t care how much time’s left on the clock and if we’re down or if we’re up.”
Beckham wasn’t hurt but did fumble as he tried to reverse field, and the 49ers recovered during their 31-3 win Monday night.
Coach Freddie Kitchens punted on two fourth downs from Cleveland’s 45-yard line in the third quarter and removed quarterback Baker Mayfield when the Browns got the ball back after the 49ers kicked a field goal following Beckham’s fumble to make it 31-3 with 5:08 left.
But Priefer wasn’t ready to give up when Beckham asked to return the punt.
“With 7 1/2 minutes to go, you never know,” he said. “If we block the left gunner, the gunner on our left side, we’ve got something. He’s the one that made him bubble and then he started cutting it back from there. If we get him blocked like we blocked the right gunner, we’ve got a chance for a good play. You get a good play in a situation like that, next thing you know there’s 6 1/2 minutes to go in the game, you’re down 18. I know it’s a lot, I get it, I’m a little bit more of an optimist that most people, but I’m also a realist.”
Priefer said he and Beckham had talked earlier in the game about using him as a punt returner. Receiver Jarvis Landry has been handling the duties and has seven fair catches to four returns with a 12-yard average.
“Odell was trying to make a play. God bless him, he wanted to go out there,” Priefer said. “We talked about it beforehand, I cleared it with Freddie and he went out there to try to provide a spark for our team.”
Priefer echoed former offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who famously told former Hue Jackson, “You can’t live in your fears.”
“When you’re in a situation where you can use an athlete like him, why wouldn’t you?” Priefer said. “You can’t ever coach scared, ‘Oh, my gosh, he might turn an ankle or whatever.’ You’ve got to go out there and say, ‘Can he help us win the game in this spot?’ Then you put him out there.”
Beckham had caught punts in practice, so Priefer said he was prepared. He has returned 42 punts in his career, 21 as a rookie in 2014, for a 6.9 average and no touchdowns.
Priefer was excited that Beckham wanted the chance.
“I loved it. He doesn’t care what the score is,” he said. “He’s a competitive young man.”