Bill Belichick gave Ken Walter every chance he could to right his ship. But in the end, his season-long struggles that were capped off by a 31-yard punt out of his end zone in overtime two weeks ago against Houston and a dismal 18-yarder late in Sunday's win over the Colts proved to be the final straws. He was released Tuesday and replaced by rookie Brooks Barnard, who kicked for the Bears during training camp after a solid college career at Maryland.
Walter hits the unemployment line with a league-low 37.9-yard gross punting average and a subpar 33.5-yard net average. It was a far cry from his performance in 2001 when he signed with the team in October of that year. He was instrumental in a punt coverage unit that ranked No. 1 in the NFL that season and helped the Patriots win the field position battle in close games down the stretch on the way to a Super Bowl title.
But after posting an impressive 38.1 net average that season with 24 punts downed inside the 20 and only two touchbacks, Walter's performance slipped last year. He still managed to hold off close competition from Dan Pope in training camp last summer, but couldn't overcome his own troubles that lingered and even worsened throughout the season. Walter was booed at Gillette Stadium during the Patriots 12-0 win over the Cowboys back on Nov. 16.
He never had a big leg, but he generally was able to hang punts high while sending them 40-plus yards. His specialty was his ability to pin opponents deep without punting it in the end zone and that ability may have saved his job for much of this season. He was brilliant in a 9-3 win over Cleveland, pinning the Browns inside their 20 four times and inside their 10 twice. For the season, he had 16 punts downed inside the 20 with only three touchbacks. But when he had to kick the Patriots out of harm's way with a long punt from his own end, he too often failed to even reach the punt returner.
The Patriots may have been hesitant to release Walter because he also held for Adam Vinatieri and the Patriots kicker will now have to grow accustomed to a new holder over the final four weeks and into the playoffs. So while there was a concern that Walter's punting could have cost the Patriots a win -- which as bad as it was, it never did -- his absence could also affect the outcome of a close game if Vinatieri misses a field goal because of a poor hold.
Damon Huard, who has been the emergency quarterback the last two weeks, is the backup holder and could perform the duties as could starting quarterback Tom Brady, who did some holding in the preseason. But Barnard is also working with Vinatieri this week and the Patriots would prefer the punter also be the holder because the two can dedicate practice time to the craft without pulling a quarterback out of his own position drills.
Barnard averaged 43.7 yards per punt in four seasons at Maryland with a 39.7-yard net average on 200 punts.