They played at Utah together and now they will quite literally face off against each other — kick to catch — in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, the winner heading to Super Bowl LVII.
The Ute versus the Ute.
The punter versus the punt returner.
The one who is deft with his foot versus the one who is fleet afoot.
He who loves hang time versus he who loathes it.
Frick versus Frack.
San Francisco’s Mitch Wishnowsky versus Philly’s Britain Covey.
This should be fun. Unless it’s not.
The problem for Covey is this: The 49ers punter has been stellar all season, doing for San Francisco what he did for the Utes, namely pinning opponents deep in their own territory, adding extra challenges to whatever they’d hoped for after stopping the ‘Niners offense and at the start of their own fresh possession.
Wishnowsky might not have the most powerful leg, at least not on average, in the NFL — although he did jack a 74-yard beaut this season — but his is among the most accurate, most troublesome, launching wiggly knuckleballs, flipping fields, changing games. The 49ers think highly enough of the Aussie to have signed him to a four-year extension earlier this season for some $13 million. Not bad for a sturdily-built dude who dropped out of high school at one point in Western Australia to labor as a glass-cutting and -installing tradesman. That was long before he ended up at Utah.
Here’s the deal: The man’s essentially taken the fun out of laughing at punters, normally the most disrespected position in all of football. That’s not the way it is on the ‘Niners. Wishnowsky is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and has been known to flatten returners on kickoffs with enough force for his teammates to take notice.
During a recent video interview in which Wishnowsky was riding in a golf cart, tight end George Kittle ran full speed to catch up with the cart, give Wishnowsky a bear hug and yell, “I love Mitch!” In case you were wondering, that does not happen on every team with every All-Pro with every punter.
You’ve heard the derision, all around. Punters aren’t athletes. Nobody’s exactly sure what they are, but they’re not that. They’re typically gangly, skinny dudes who have little more than a bit of thunder in their foot. Some observers would just as soon take the foot — and the punters attached to it — completely out of football. Just call it … ball.
That stems, in part, from the fact that many fans are disappointed whenever a punter takes the field, wishing instead that the attack that was just stopped short would go for it on fourth down. Punting is an admission of failure, a concession, a nod to giving up, at least momentarily. Who likes that in competitive sport?
Add to that the general confusion about how punters do what they do — generate enough torque to launch spirals high and long — and are not allowed to be touched, nudged, coughed on, burped at, roughed up in any way, while all the other players — well, except for quarterbacks these days — are muddied and grass-stained, running full speed into each other, getting knocked and crunched and bruised. When was the last time anyone saw a punter with a dirty uniform?
Hold it right there. Wishnowsky, who San Francisco took with a fourth-round pick in 2019, much to the chagrin of a good number of 49ers fans, really has been much more than an admission, a confession this season. As mentioned, he’s done what he did at Utah — become an authentic force and factor.
Just when it seemed the ‘Niners might be in trouble from time to time, relinquishing momentum to whomever they were playing, in came Wishnowsky to rearrange that feeling, often punching his vintage floating rugby kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, making its task that much more difficult, staring down a formidable San Francisco defense.
Wishnowsky has pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line 32 times, near the top of the league in that regard. More impressive has been his percentage of punts downed inside an opponent’s 20 — a whopping 52.5 percent. No other punter came close to that.
Here’s the one that makes Covey’s job as a return man even more challenging: Of Wishnowsky’s 61 punts this season, only 17 have been returned. For someone as aggressive as Covey wants to be, that’s no bueno.
Covey, who averages 9.3 yards per punt return for the Eagles, with a long of 27, coupled with a 21-yard average on kickoff returns, says he wants to let it rip, grab and go, take some chances to break loose with a big return, what he so often did for the Utes, but Philly coaches have asked him to be cautious, to not take too many risks.
“Because we have such a good team with so many great players on it,” says Covey, there’s no pressing need.
When the diminutive returner first showed up at Eagles camp as an undrafted rookie, he looked around at the team’s talent and was awed. He thought pro players would be good, but … this good?
When he mentioned it to a grizzled veteran on the team, the vet said: “It’s not usually like this. This is the most talented team I’ve ever been on.”
So it is. Covey says he’ll bide his time, then, listen to his coaches, be careful, and wait for the right opportunity to return and burn.
“All it takes is one or two returns to break out,” he says.
Sunday would be a good time to do that, helping his team to the Super Bowl — at the expense of his old teammate, who may or may not serve up a sweet returnable ball. It’s not the way to bet, given Wishnowsky’s track record.
Compellingly enough, Covey told me just a few weeks ago that after every game, he approaches the opposing team’s punter to ask what the game plan was against him in the run-up, what coaches are saying about him.
Usually they’ve responded with kind, complimentary words.
What will Wishnowsky say to Covey?
That likely will be kept friend to friend, foe to foe, Ute to Ute.