Here is what Britain Covey is facing on Monday night when the Washington Commanders come to town for a prime-time NFC East game: Temperatures dipping into the 30s, possibly some wind, and punter Tress Way on the other end of the field. Cold weather is one thing and every punt returner faces that during an NFL season. Wind? Nobody said it was an easy job returning punts in this world. Way? Ahhhh, here is the secret sauce.
"He's unusual for a lot of reasons," Covey said of Way, an All-Pro and Pro Bowl punter in 2019 who is averaging 48.4 yards per punt this season. "He's left-footed, so you don't see that a lot. He's a great punter. He's the kind of guy that you have to have a healthy respect for in the sense that you are reacting to him, rather than him reacting to you a lot of the times."
Say what? React to a punter? This is getting kinda deep here. More Covey.
"He's very smart with his body angles and how he pulls it across his body at times. You can't really get a 'tell' on him and that's what makes him such a great punter," Covey said. "He's one of the top three punters in the league. He can pull it across his body and it's hard to tell where the punt is going until it's late. It looks awkward to a return man. Coach (Special Teams Coordinator Michael Clay) told me he's already caused three or four muffs this year just because he's got that awkward movement.
"For me, the big thing is securing the punt. I literally have the utmost confidence in myself, knowing what kind of returner I can be and the progression I am making. My goal this season is to break the year into three segments. We're now in the second segment and I want to be better here than I was in the first one. Game to game, I want to improve. That's the goal for me."
Covey is averaging 6.6 yards on his 17 returns, with a long of 15 yards. After a career at the University of Utah during which Covey returned four punts for touchdowns – and another kickoff for a score – he has learned that the NFL is an entirely different animal. The punters are so much better at pinning a return man in a corner with their directional kicks. The gunners are long and fast and powerful. Those covering kicks – both punts and kickoffs – are disciplined with lane integrity, so there are few opportunities to bust a big one.
It's going to happen. Covey is convinced of that. He reviews film of every return from every NFL team each week, looking for ways to improve his performance. He is in total concentration mode on the practice field and in meetings. The Eagles are working to get their return game better and they feel progress is being made, if not in huge plays quite yet then in specific blocks and returns that Clay can work with his players to build upon.
There are times when Covey is at home watching college football and seeing big returns and laughing, because life in college, with the open lanes and the lack of precision, lends itself to explosive gains.
"I've watched and it's enjoyable," he said. "But what I really watch is the returners in the league and look to see what separates the really good returners from the rest of the return men. And you know what? You see that all it takes is for a return man to catch it one time with a lot of space to work with and you see a big return and then things really start to happen. But 90 percent of the time, return men have such little room to operate and there aren't many busts. It gives me confidence. When I watch the film, I see that I'm not that far behind these great returners and I know that I'm going to get there.
"We're going to get it. And when we do get it, it's going to be great."
In fact, to back up what Covey sees, there hasn't been a punt return for a touchdown yet in the league. Covey says there are only two decisions he has made that he would like to have back, a very strong percentage. Securing the football and giving the potent Eagles offense an opportunity to take possession is the first key for the return, and then gaining positive yards and hopefully busting one comes next.
A punt returner has the odds against him on every kick.
"I think it all encompasses where these punters are so good in terms of the hang time, putting this directionally towards the sideline, cutting off three quarters of the field," Clay said. "Then you have guys 6-feet-4, gunners out there that could beat a vice (block), could beat a single (block), and get in a guy's face.
"It's a lot of all going in together with the punter, gunners. Can we block these guys, can we sustain blocks, guys on the interior. Linebackers now are – special teams linebackers you see 6-1, 230 (pounds) that can run 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash). That's tough to do and get loose. But I think it's just the athletes that happen now make it a lot harder in the return game."
Maybe it happens on Monday night for Covey and the Eagles. It only takes one, right? A big return would mean so much for these special teams.
"I think about it all the time. All the time," Covey said. "That's what I visualize and all it takes is one for the perception and the perspective to change for everybody. I was talking to Gunner Olszewski (an All-Pro punt returner with the Patriots last year who signed with the Steelers in the offseason) and he said, 'A lot of times you have to bust the first one on your own and then you start getting the help you need.' That was an interesting concept.
"We're due for one, but we've been getting better every week. It's coming. I just know it and wholeheartedly believe that."