October 13, 2023   8 MIN READ

Smart Returns

Covey's Behind-The-Scenes Influence On Special Teams Shining Through


When it comes to the intricacies of special teams, Eagles punt returner Britain Covey borders on obsessive.

During his glory days at Utah, where Covey shouldered double duty as a multi-talented receiver and being among the sport’s most electric punt returners, Covey would habitually meet with a coach and draw up his own return schemes, identifying tells and tendencies he hoped to exploit.

Covey’s dogged dedication to the game’s third phase ran in conjunction with his main responsibilities on offense.

The results were evident, as Covey parlayed his infatuation into three-time first-team All-Pac-12 punt returner honors and established a program record in punt return yards (1,092).

He also led the country in consecutive years in punt return yards.

While his particularities and specificities in the return game have carried into his pro career, Covey resisted the urge of implementing a formal meeting with his protection unit last year, careful of the optics from a rookie trying to take command.

Instead, he limited his meticulous instructions to fellow rookies.

In his second season, however, Covey, has undertaken more of a leadership role that has resonated throughout his unit.

Throughout the week, Covey will pull teammates aside and relay pointers gleaned from film study, particularly during Thursday’s punt return walkthrough.

On Saturday, a day before the game, Covey will assemble the team’s gunners and watch film with them while also conveying thoughts and mapping out the subtleties and nuances of the blocking scheme for that given week, exclusive to the opposition.

A few days before the Eagles’ 34-31 overtime home win against the Washington Commanders, Covey worked with practice squad safety Tristin McCollum on his shadow technique as a jammer in the narrow walkway in front of his locker stall.

These are some appreciable measures in which Covey has taken ownership and demonstrated initiative and influence.

“I would say that, a lot of times, film study is all about finding tendencies,” Covey said this week. “And I think that punt unit, especially, there’s a lot of tendencies that you can pick out if you watch enough film.

“When I break down a team’s punt unit, I go player by player – all 11 guys – and I try to find certain tendencies. Then I basically go to mostly everyone on my punt return unit, but at least four or five guys that week, and I’ll show them a couple clips and I’ll say, ‘Hey, this is a tendency that I think we can exploit this week.’

Britain Covey

GETTY IMAGES: Eagles second-year punt returner Britain Covey leads the NFL in punt return yards.

“I find that if I’m gonna expect them to block for me, which is a really hard job, I gotta do my part in helping them out with what I see. That’s usually what I’ll do, is I’ll find a couple clips that I can show each person and say, ‘This is the guy you’re going against. This is his tendency, here’s what I think we should do.’”

Results have been remarkably evident through five games, as Covey leads the NFL in punt return yardage (186). His 16.9 yards per return qualifies as third-most behind the Bengals’ Charlie Jones (18.8) and Saints’ Rashid Shaheed (18.3).

Against the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football in Week 3, Covey dazzled before a national audience, accumulating 111 yards on four returns, including a career-long 52-yard punt return, longest by an Eagle since 2020.

Accolades and improvement notwithstanding, it wasn’t until recently that Covey’s contributions have become noticed and appreciated, as unfair and unreasonable as that might be.

The courageous Covey has shown fearlessness with the ball in his hands, often putting his diminutive frame in harm’s way in exchange for better field position.

His risks are often calculated, and his decisiveness and confidence are palpable.

“He’s done a really good job understanding what the punter is trying to do, what the coverage is trying to do,” special teams coordinator Michael Clay said. “A lot of times it has to do with what the guys up front are doing, on the outside with [Josh] Jobe and Kelee [Ringo], they did a really good job neutralizing some gunners to give him an opportunity.

“You see Eli Ricks in there kind of taking almost a fullback approach picking up any trash right there. A lot of times it’s predicated on what the other 10 guys are doing and they’ve done a pretty good job the first five weeks allowing Britain the opportunities to get some yardage for us.”

Covey also singled out Ringo, Jobe and Ricks, along with other special-teamers Derek Barnett, and Nolan Smith.

And just to illustrate how thorough he really is, Covey flagged this reporter down a few minutes later to ensure Terrell Edmunds’ name was also included among that group.

Edmunds returned the compliment.

“It’s definitely a team effort, but the man that runs the whole show is Covey,” said the veteran safety. “We have full trust in Covey. We know we just have to block for him.

“We’re trying to put everything out there for him to go out there and just give him that opportunity to catch the ball with some space. And we know that he’s a dynamic player, so he can go out there and make something happen.”

There’s more to this reconfigured return unit than meets the eye.

When the Eagles lost several prominent contributors just months removed from appearing in Super Bowl LVII – including cornerback Zech McPhearson, safety K’Von Wallace, linebacker Shaun Bradley and wide receiver Zach Pascal – and replaced them with a considerably younger nucleus, they figured to undergo typical growing pains due to inexperience.

Nobody would be blamed for concern about a repeat of the 2022 unit’s mishaps.

But the early returns suggest otherwise, as Clay’s unit appears cohesive and disciplined, customarily selling out to clear traffic for Covey.

The latter appears to stem from respect and admiration for Covey, an affable personality forged by an indomitable work ethic, who abides by the principle of taking one’s role – however big or small – and owning it.

It’s probably why someone like linebacker Christian Elliss, whom Covey identified as the de facto leader of the unit and his personal protector, is commonly seen pulling players off the slippery returner and serving as the group’s enforcer.

Need another example of the inherent brotherhood and symbiotic relationship of a unit in the midst of a remarkable turnaround?

Look no further than Jobe, who hardly classifies as an outspoken personality. The second-year corner was unflinching in his support, vowing to hear whatever Covey has to say, doing whatever Covey needs, and having his returner’s back.

When a unit is this communicative and works toward a common goal, positive results shouldn’t be a surprise.

“We always want Covey to be successful on his returns,” Jobe said. “It’s a team and it’s one unit, and we all want to be successful. If one person does his job, and the other person does his job, everything works out.

“We’re very proud – every special teams – is proud of Covey. Day one, I knew Covey was special when he first came here as an undrafted free agent. And he’s been doing great since then. So, we’d do anything to protect him – at all costs.”

It makes sense that a unit rife with young, hungry depth pieces looking to impress coaches would raise the level of production.

But the wise wager would be that it’s also some combination of Covey’s happy-go-lucky demeanor, diligence and unrelenting pursuit of perfection that resonates with his return unit.

“I don’t think he ever had a bad day,” Edmunds said. “You just see how much he cares about it. Like, he watches the film on it; he gives us tips, anything that we need to help the whole team go out there and have success.

“And we know that we just want him to go out there and be the type of player we know him to be. So, we just go out there and block as hard as we can until the whistle’s blown and give him an opportunity to make a big play.”

But even Covey understands that hard work and devotion doesn’t always manifest into outstanding production.

While traveling on Saturday to MetLife Stadium to take on the hapless New York Jets might suggest a reawakening of the Eagles’ return game – reminiscent of the Week 3 thrill in Tampa –  Covey was quick to point out that the Jets’ punt coverage is ranked No. 1 in the league and is known to put everything outside the numbers.

Given the hang time, trajectory, and gunner personnel, a 10-yard return this week would be equivalent to a 20-yarder most weeks, Covey said.

Which only intensified the group’s preparation throughout the week.

“I attribute the fact that sometimes you don’t even have to be the best or the most athletic, you just have to be the smartest,” Covey said. “And that’s kind of what I’ve made a lot of my career on – I’m never the strongest, I’m seldom the fastest, I’m often the quickest.

“But most of the time, I pride myself on being the smartest. And that’s what I try to help people see.”

– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.

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