Miller a kick to talk to
FOXBOROUGH -- The punter is the funniest guy in the room. You learn to develop a sense of humor when the nickname of your junior college is the Artichokes.
"The Fighting Artichokes," Josh Miller corrected me. "Tough nickname. We lost before the kickoff."
The alumnus of Scottsdale Community College (and later the University of Arizona) is so witty, he used to host a radio talk show in Pittsburgh when he punted for the Steelers. That perk has been eliminated here in New England, but Miller is a refreshing voice on a team that has been encouraged to spew stock answers and boring cliches. Normally, a Wednesday media session before a playoff game would require a steady dose of Red Bull to keep the pupils from dilating, but there are never any glazed looks when reporters gather at Miller's locker. He has tons of great material, even though he knows far better than to use most of it.
That's because he understands punting for the New England Patriots is no laughing matter. He need look no further than his predecessor, Ken Walter, for proof. Walter, who was also a thoughtful, articulate man, was identified by many fans as the lone blemish on an otherwise spotless Super Bowl campaign last season.
Walter heard about his shortcomings on a regular basis. It got to him. At one point last season, he confessed to perusing the team's schedule and becoming excited when the Patriots were playing on the road. He also revealed that as he was holding the ball for Adam Vinatieri, who was about to kick the winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI against St. Louis, he thought about what would happen if he somehow botched the play. He invoked the name of Bill Buckner, saying, "I remember thinking, `Oh that would be awful. There would be a new curse, and my name would be associated with it.' "
Almost a year ago this Sunday, the Patriots played Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game. With New England up, 21-7, Walter came on in the fourth quarter for his first punt of the day. The ball went just 30 yards, and instead of New England pinning Peyton Manning and his arsenal deep in their territory, Walter's anemic kick gave the Colts the ball at their 33-yard line. Manning used the favorable field position to lead his team down the field for a touchdown. The next time Walter was called on to punt, it was fourth and 10 from the Indianapolis 44-yard line. Again, the Patriots had hopes of pinning Indianapolis deep in its territory with a properly angled punt. Instead, Walter's kick sailed 44 yards into the end zone, thus spotting the Colts the ball at the 20-yard line.
A little thing? Yes. But little things often make the difference in big games. Indianapolis is back for more, and while neither Miller nor his counterpart, Hunter Smith, is expected to see a lot of action Sunday, the few times they will be called upon could be pivotal.
"I've got to give my defense as big a field as possible to protect," Miller said. "If you kick it too short, it's almost like guaranteeing points to their team the way Peyton throws the ball. Their offense is great. Our defense is great. It could well come down to a chess match of field position."
As some of you are reading this, you might be trying to recall just exactly how Miller has done this season. Don't you see? That's the point. The fact his name isn't on the tip of your tongue suggests he's done just fine, averaging 42 yards a punt. Walter was omnipresent last season, for all the wrong reasons.
"I know Kenny, and I sympathize with him," Miller said yesterday. "The elements here are for real. Anyhow, I can also relate. I had a couple of bad years in Pittsburgh, and they booed me coming out of my car with street clothes on."
In Miller's first exhibition game here, he boomed a beauty and the fans cheered as if their team had won another Super Bowl.
"It was pretty cool," Miller said. "Kickers claim they don't remember any of their kicks. Yeah, sure. You remember all of them, and you file them away. After [the exhibition] I showered, came home to my wife, and said, `We're going to have a good time here.' "
Miller hasn't been perfect. He had his own stinker against the Baltimore Ravens in a steady rain back on Nov. 28. He punted eight times for a 32.1-yard average (and a net average of 25.6 yards), and heard a few boo birds of his own.
"Well deserved," he said. "I was awful. I couldn't kick a piece of candy out of a pinata."
Although Walter was maligned by Patriot Nation, he was a popular player in the locker room. Vinatieri and snapper Lonie Paxton, in particular, grew close to the guy who was the holder for all of Vinatieri's field goals. Yet Miller quickly earned their approval.
"It's kind of amazing how well we've meshed together," Paxton said. "We've had two good guys here in a row as punters. Kenny took a lot last year. I won't say I felt bad for him, because everyone can take it. You've got to be thick-skinned. But it's still hard. You've got neighbors that read the paper and listen to talk radio."
Miller not only knows Walter, they are friends. They talked on and off throughout this season about the challenges of punting at Gillette Stadium, before Walter became a late-season pickup with Seattle.
"It's tough to kick here," Miller conceded. "It's the wind. And, this time of year, it's the rain and the snow. But the other guys have to kick in it, too."
Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt made headlines this week for insinuating, among other things, that New England is ripe for the picking. You can be sure Miller has a plethora of one-liners to retaliate with, but he's not about to offer up any of them.
"Hey, my playbook is pretty thin," he said. "It's `kick the damn thing.' In games like this, you don't want to know who the hell the kicker or the punter is. Then you're doing your job."
In other words, silence is golden. Ask Ken Walter. The noise of those boos, at times, was deafening to him.
"All I can say about Kenny is this," offered Miller. "He's got two Super Bowl rings and I don't."
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.