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BOB RYAN

Punter Barnard weathers the storm

FOXBOROUGH -- The new Puntah says he's a nerd.

Let's clarify that. He's not a full-fledged nerd, just a, well, let him explain.

"I'm a Weather Channel nerd," says Brooks Barnard, whose auspicious Patriots debut also happened to be his NFL debut. "I probably watched it for about six hours yesterday."

Is this perfectly in keeping with the overall tenor of 2003 Patriots football, or what? Thirteen games into the season, they find themselves in rather desperate need of a punter, and they manage to find one for whom yesterday's snowy and windy conditions were downright blissful. If he likes it this much, perhaps next week the Patriots can stick him on the seawall at Humarock and see if he can kick even better.

It was a debut to remember. On a late afternoon and early evening when offense was very difficult to generate, the kicking game was a vital component for both sides. Barnard may wind up hanging around the NFL for 10, 12, or 15 years, and he may never again be asked to punt 10 times. But that's what happened yesterday, when Barnard, Miami's Matt Turk, and -- get this -- Tom Brady combined to punt the ball a whopping 22 times.

"I knew when I woke up and looked out the window it was going to be a game of field position," said Barnard, who sounds an awful lot like he should be hanging out with the gang in `Diner.' "I knew somehow, some way, I was going to be a part of this game."

The party-minded crowd of 45,378 almost spooked him when he got off his first kick, a 31-yarder that neatly bounced out of bounds at the Miami 7-yard line. It was all because he was the new, official anti-(Ken) Walter, of course, but their cheers made the rook feel good, whatever the motivation. "You would have thought I just scored a touchdown," he marveled.

But the big cheers came for kick No. 9, a fourth-quarter 36-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Miami 4, with the Patriots clinging to a precarious 3-0 lead obtained way back in the first quarter. Now, with just over nine minutes to play, everyone knew just how important such a well-placed kick could be in a game like this. That included Barnard, who offered up a prediction, right then and there.

"I was telling Larry Izzo we were going to get a touchdown on that swing, and, sure enough, we did," he said.

True enough. On Miami's first play from scrimmage after that helpful punt, Tedy Bruschi made an acrobatic interception of a Jay Fiedler pass and returned it for a score that put the game out of reach.

Truth be told, Barnard was somewhat erratic. His longest punt was a third-quarter 49-yarder (38-yard net), and he only had one more in the 40s, a 44-yarder in the second quarter. He had disappointing kicks of 30 and 26, and it almost seemed as if Bill Belichick took more note of them than he did the more impressive kicks. "I thought Brooks did a good job," said the mentor. "Some were better than others. But we got out of there without any major problems and had a couple of good field position plays. So it was OK. It wasn't perfect, but it is OK."

That's an endorsement. I think.

"For the first game, it was pretty good," Barnard analyzed. "However, there's still a lot for me to work on. I'm sure I can do better."

Now that's what the coach wants to hear.

The coach may have been a bit blase about those two kicks that went out inside the 10, but they really were a big deal. We're always stunned when anybody puts the ball out of bounds, with intent, in the modern NFL. Week after week, airhead punters standing inside the 50 boom the ball straight down the field and into the end zone for needless touchbacks. Putting one out in the old coffin corner is a dying art.

"I try to do those things," said Barnard. "It's pretty effective, but it takes a lot of skill to do it."

He was denied a chance for an 11th punt when Brady successfully executed a 36-yard pooch punt (on a fourth and 9) that rolled to a stop on the Miami 1 with 1:51 remaining and the Dolphins out of timeouts. "I was pretty jealous of him kicking it out on the 1 after I had kicked it out on the 4," Barnard joked.

One week ago Barnard was in his Annapolis, Md., home, watching the Patriots play the Colts. He already had tried out for the Patriots, and had been told by Belichick to sit tight. Yesterday he found himself part of the hoopla and hysteria as the Patriots clinched the AFC East with him playing a key role in his first NFL game. "It's all pretty amazing," he said.

It would have been pretty amazing under any circumstances, but it was doubly amazing given the conditions, which included snow and a wind that was officially listed as a game-time 20 to 25 miles per hour, and which gusted to who-knows-what. Wouldn't it have been a lot less stressful to make your NFL debut in a dome, or, say, San Diego?

"I wouldn't have it any other way," insisted the 24-year old University of Maryland grad. "I just like weather." He likes it so much that he would actually like to be a weatherman some day. His undergrad degree is in physical therapy, but he is planning on pursuing a graduate degree in meteorology.

Next week it's a 1 o'clock game and it won't be snowing. Hope he doesn't get bored.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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