FOXBOROUGH -- When Lonie Paxton hobbled through the New England locker room one day last March, the long snapper, who was recovering from knee surgery, almost limped past the man with whom he'd be working the most in the 2004 season.
If not for Adam Vinatieri, who introduced the two, Paxton would have had no idea that the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pounder touring the locker room was Josh Miller, the Patriots' new punter -- the guy he'd be staring at, from between his legs, nearly every day since.
Such anonymity suits Miller just fine. He doesn't mind that he's one of two J. Millers on the team -- third-string quarterback Jim Miller has the locker two slots down.
"You don't want people to know who you are," the punter said. "You don't want to hear after games, `What happened here? What happened there?' You want to shower, get out of there, and let the other guys handle everything."
After Monday night's loss to the Dolphins, however, Josh Miller, Paxton, and their fellow special teamers had to answer for the 71-yard punt return that Miami's Wes Welker broke on a 44-yard first-quarter punt. Welker stumbled 2 yards short of the end zone when Je'Rod Cherry tripped him up, but on the next play, Sammy Morris catapulted into the end zone to give the Dolphins their first score. Even worse, Miller injured his shoulder on the runback when he tried to bring Welker down.
"I wish I had that one back," Miller said. "I would have clotheslined him, grabbed his facemask, whatever."
Instead, Welker shook off the punter and Miller's right hand was driven into the turf, shooting pain into his shoulder. Vinatieri thought he might have to take over punting duties, but after several minutes, Miller told the training staff he could still kick. Miller changed his mechanics to prevent Welker from breaking another long return. On his next punt, Miller lowered his drop, which allowed him to kick a low line drive. On his final two punts, Miller raised his drop, kicking the ball shorter (40 yards in the second quarter and 35 yards in the fourth) but higher, which resulted in a pair of fair catches.
Making adjustments has been nothing new for Miller this year. After spending eight seasons with Pittsburgh, and being named a Pro Bowl alternate in 1999, Miller was cut by the Steelers when they signed veteran Chris Gardocki. So Miller changed teams for the first time in his NFL career, signing a five-year contract with New England March 15. He has known Vinatieri since 1996, when the two met while training on a field in Vero Beach, Fla., and both were dreaming of NFL careers (Miller was a member of the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League, while Vinatieri was preparing to start his first season with the Amsterdam Admirals of the then-World League).
Miller didn't know Paxton, but on that day during his visit to the locker room, the snapper told Miller to step outside. Paxton, who had just started his rehabilitation, could barely bend his leg, but somehow he snapped a perfect spiral to his new teammate -- the first of many. In training camp, Miller took 100 long snaps every day, most of which arrived level to his hips, just as he likes. He also caught 100 short snaps from Paxton each day, learning how to set the ball leaning forward and slightly to the right, as Vinatieri prefers. While Miller had only been a holder for one season prior to this year, his inexperience actually helped Vinatieri adjust to a new holder.
"Luckily, I haven't had too many years of holding, so I didn't have many bad habits," Miller said. "I was able to immediately do it the way he likes, so it was an easier transition."
The result has been a career year for Vinatieri, who leads the NFL with 127 points, tying a career high he set in 1998. Vinatieri, who was named to the Pro Bowl Wednesday, has made 28 of 29 field goal attempts and drilled all 43 extra-point tries.
"You try to make it look as easy as possible," Miller said of kicking. "If it looks easy, then we're doing our job. Any time Adam doesn't have to think about anything other than the kick, that means the holder's doing all right and the snapper's doing all right."
Vinatieri's honor, however, hasn't allowed Miller to forget about Welker's return. Before the game, Miller didn't think much of Welker's abilities.
"You look at this kid and say, `Ah, he won't burn you.' But he's a good athlete," Miller said. "He has all the things you can't teach."
It doesn't get easier Sunday against the New York Jets, who have Santana Moss (two career punt returns for touchdowns). Miller, who considers himself an angle punter, said he has considered several ways to negate Moss's quickness. He plans to force Moss to move to catch the ball, kick the ball out of bounds, or blast short, high kicks that will give New England's coverage team enough time to sprint downfield. His decisions, however, will be based on several factors -- weather, the Jets' tendencies that the Patriots can spot on film, or how short Moss decides to play the punts.
"It's like snowflakes -- they're all different," Miller said. "You just have to weigh it out and see what's presented to you."