Josh Miller had a 45.1-yard average and netted 38.3 yards per punt in 2005. Both of those numbers ranked him near the top of the NFL standings and made Miller a Pro Bowl candidate. He was on his way to having another good year before a shoulder injury forced the Patriots to put Miller on injured reserve. It was obvious something wasn't right with Miller because he only averaged 37 yards per punt in his last two games before being put on the shelf for the rest of the season.
After Miller went down, the team brought in Ken Walter to handle the punting duties. Walter played for the Patriots from 2001-2003, winning two Super Bowl rings with New England. Despite the fact that Walter was out of football in 2005, coach Bill Belichick felt comfortable signing him because of his familiarity with the punter.
"I think a big part of the decision with Kenny is as much about the holding as it is the punting," Belichick said shortly after Walter was signed. "He's done both for us in the past."
Walter has done a fine job as a holder on field-goal attempts, but his punting has been sporadic. After three games, Walter was averaging just 35.9 yards per punt while netting a dismal 32.9. In his first two outings against the Bears and Lions, Walter's punts may have been short, but they were also high enough to not allow a return in either game.
Walter, however, struggled in New England's loss at Miami. He had a miserable performance, netting just 29.0 yards on seven punts. Three of his punts were short line drives that Wes Welker caught on the run to set up Miami's offense on the Patriots side of the field.
To make matters worse, Dolphins punter Donnie Jones pinned the Patriots inside the 5-yard line three times. In a defensive battle where field position was important, punting certainly weighed heavily in the outcome.
"We didn't have the ball outside our 30-yard line to start until the middle of the fourth quarter," Belichick said. "We were playing on a long field, and we didn't do anything to really significantly change that field position. They did a good job of that, and we didn't do a good enough job of it. I'm not saying it's anybody's fault, but that's the way it was. That's not a good situation to be in."
If Walter's struggles continue, the team may have to look at other options as the postseason nears. Right now, that would involve either bringing in another punter or signing Danny Baugher off the practice squad. Baugher is in his first season out of the University of Arizona. As a senior, he was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award that recognizes the nation's top punter. Baugher was signed to the practice squad on Oct. 10 and has never attempted a punt in the NFL.
The Patriots had the luxury of being stable at punter in recent years thanks to the play of Miller. However, even though the team now has a new punter with a different style, it doesn't affect the coverage unit. According to special teams captain Larry Izzo, every member of the coverage team still has the same job to do whether it's Miller, Walter, Baugher or anyone else punting the football.
"I think there's a difference in Josh and Kenny in the way they kick, but it doesn't affect us much," Izzo said. "It still comes down to us doing our job. We have the same responsibilities no matter who's back there. Kenny is a big hang-time punter, while Josh gets more distance on his kicks, but our responsibilities are still the same in coverage. The only difference is the guy back there punting the ball."
The Patriots' 21-0 loss to Miami showed how good and bad punting can help decide the outcome of a football game. Walter better improve on that bleak performance and do so quickly.