FOXBOROUGH -- It all begins with a snap, but make no mistake, the process is anything but. The importance of the relationship among long snapper, holder, and placekicker cannot be overstated. To be successful, they need more harmony than a Southern Baptist church choir.
Football purists may hate it, but that's precisely why the long snapper is listed among the specialists, and why there is such a thing as a "true" holder, in other words, someone who is adept at clutching off-target snaps in clutch situations. New Patriots punter Josh Miller is the third "true" holder with whom long snapper Lonie Paxton has worked (ex-punters Lee Johnson and Ken Walter were the others). Think Paxton can just whip it back there to anybody to put it down for Adam Vinatieri? Nothing could be further from the truth.
"People think it's just a snap holding a kick," Paxton said yesterday. "It's not. You've got to know that if I throw a ball that's low and the laces are inside, he's going to correct that. If I have a snap that's floating right or left, he's going to correct it and it's not going to screw him up."
"It's trust," added Miller, standing to Paxton's left after practice.
It isn't glamorous, but the role of holder is a critical one. The holder just doesn't care to be appreciated because, like the long snapper, it's in his best interest not to be recognized.
"If the guy who's in section B, row 8, seat 87, doesn't know who I am, I'm doing my job right," said Miller, who also did the holding in Pittsburgh. "It's a lot harder than people say, but I'm not going to say it's trigonometry. It's just a lot of reps. Anything that looks easy means you're doing your job right. So we're trying to make it look as easy as possible."
The Patriots' 3-point threesome had a difficult time last year. Vinatieri battled a back injury. Walter battled himself all season and was off the team for a week, meaning backup quarterback Damon Huard had to hold for a game. In that game, against Miami Dec. 7, Paxton snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and missed the rest of the season, during which the Patriots employed two more holders. On Brian Kinchen's snap in the Super Bowl, the miracle of Vinatieri's winning kick was that Walter got the hold down.
Vinatieri, Walter, and Paxton enjoyed not only a chemistry but a kinship for the better part of three seasons, but now one of the Three (Point) Amigos is gone. And Paxton just returned to action yesterday, practicing for the first time after being removed from the active physically unable to perform list. He still has a major hurdle to clear, though.
"Just thinking that I'm not hurt anymore, just being real confident in my abilities rather than always having it in the back of my head that it's a possibility you could get hurt," he said. "As far as physically, I'm just doing everything the coaches and players say. There's no real time limit, it's kind of like, when I'm ready, I'm ready."
Paxton admittedly wasn't instantly ready to accept Miller when they first met after he joined the Patriots March 15. For starters, Paxton didn't know what he looked like.
"I stumbled across him in the locker room and didn't know it was him," Paxton recalled. "I thought it was just some new dude. Adam was like, `Hey, this is Josh Miller.' Every time you meet a new guy, you're feeling him out like, `Who is this guy?' "
Miller already knew a few things about Paxton and Vinatieri, courtesy of Walter, from whom he sought advice after signing. "He told me everything, the ups and downs and what it's all about," Miller said of Walter. "Told me how to deal with Adam, how to deal with Lon. He told me, `You're really walking into an office.' It's like taking over a corporation that's already making a billion dollars. They make my job a lot easier."
Though he's just been cleared for practice, Paxton has been snapping to Miller all offseason, hundreds of times per day. In a classic case of taking their work home with them, Paxton and Miller also spend time together away from the stadium, often talking football. There's something about a healthy relationship off the field that manifests itself when there are three seconds left and the team is trailing by 2. Paxton and Miller already are cool with each other, now it's about getting to the point where, no matter the weather, they'll be cool under pressure -- every time.
"It's coming along quicker than I thought it would," said Miller, who called Paxton "head and shoulders" the best long snapper with whom he's worked because he combines speed with accuracy. "A lot of it's personality," Miller said. "We mesh pretty good. That's where it starts. It's the initial, `I have to see this guy every day, is he a good guy?' Turns out he is, so it makes it a lot easier.
"The thing that I like most about Lonie is he really gets upset when it's not perfect. He really takes it personally. He wants to know what every snap did, he wants feedback. It's not only a job, but it's personal."
Fortunately for Paxton, Miller doesn't mind the occasional misplacement on punts. Vinatieri, on the other hand, prefers the ball pointed forward and tilted slightly to the right, a little different than most kickers. Miller, Vinatieri said, is getting close to getting it right -- every time.
"I've been spoiled," Vinatieri said. "Fans see the operation and don't understand all the little intricate details that go into it. Ken Walter was an amazing holder. Josh is getting more familiar with the way I like it. He's getting it."
It isn't often that a punter is considered a key free agent acquisition, but that just goes to show how poorly Walter kicked last year. Fans at training camp have shown Miller their appreciation by applauding some of his deeper punts. Miller may be a clear upgrade at punter, but when he's on the field and not doing the kicking, he knows he has a tough act to follow.
"My whole goal," Miller said, "is for Adam to be as comfortable as he was with Ken."