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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Miller has them on solid footing

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Being a Football Genius is hard work. The quest for perfection is never ending. You can always improve. That's why Corey Dillon will be carrying the football Sunday for the Patriots instead of Antowain Smith. And that's why Josh Miller -- instead of Ken Walter -- will be punting, and holding for Adam Vinatieri's clutch kicks.

Much has been made of Dillon as an upgrade in this Super season, but hardly anybody notices the left-footed punter. Not fair. Miller has given the Patriots a reliable weapon in an area that made everyone nervous the last few seasons.

Going into last year's Super Bowl, Walter was a story because we feared he'd be involved in some cataclysmic event that could lose the game. Someone took the air out of his kicks during the 2003 season and he remains the only Patriot who was routinely booed at Gillette Stadium. But Vinatieri loved the way Walter teed up the football for field goals after catching long snaps from Lonie Paxton. And that's why Walter was the Super Bowl punter, even after he was sent home for a week during the 2003 season.

Still, he made us anxious. He even admitted he was afraid of a Bill Buckneresque moment that would immortalize him in the New England sports museum's hall of pain.

There's no worry with the new guy. Miller is a nine-year NFL verteran (plus two seasons in the Canadian Football League) with no night sweats about shanks or watching a football tumble behind him after mishandling a long snap. He is confident and he loves to talk. He is, after all, a Jersey Guy (East Brunswick).

Nervous about the Super Bowl, Josh?

"No, it's still the game," he said. "I'm still doing what I've been doing a million times. It's not like I have to wear a blindfold because it's the Super Bowl. It's just my job and then I get the hell off the field and let the offense or defense win it. No trick plays from me. Something bad has to happen in order for there to be a trick play."

After eight solid years with the Steelers, he was abruptly let go last March when Pittsburgh signed Chris Gardocki. Within a week, Bill Belichick was on the phone (one of more than a dozen teams that called), inviting Miller to dinner at Don Shula's restaurant in West Palm Beach. The Genius offered Miller the job before the appetizers were served.

"He's a legend and I just wanted to meet him," Miller said of his dinner with Bill. "He said, `We know what you can do and we want you to come here.' How could you say no to that?

"That poor guy, he had to sit there with me just three weeks after the Super Bowl. I told him, `You know what's a shame about this? It's a great moment for me, but an awful moment for you. You just won the Super Bowl and now you've got to come here and have dinner with me.' It was crazy."

"Josh is a guy we've always liked, coming out of college [Arizona] and when he punted in Canada," said Genius Bill. "I thought that was a real good signing that Pittsburgh made when they took him out of there. He's been a consistent player for the Steelers in this league and when the Steelers signed Gardocki and released [Miller], we thought we'd like to have him on our team and that he would be able to do what we wanted him to do. I think he's come in and done a good job of that [42-yard average, none blocked]. He hadn't held for a couple of years, but that's been solid and our kicking game -- field goals and extra points -- has been consistent."

"It hasn't been a problem," Miller said when asked about holding for the All-World Vinatieri. "I came in here and he showed me how he liked the ball held. He does like it a little different. He likes the ball forward and to the right. The laces have to be straight down, toward the uprights. That's crucial."

As for his own kicks, Miller pays no attention to hang time because, "Each punt is like a snowflake. You can hit a low line drive out of bounds, so your hang doesn't matter. You can sky one for 30 yards. You can pooch punt. So I don't keep track of that stuff."

His closest brush with the Super Bowl came in January 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. The day got off to a bad start when Troy Brown returned one of his punts 55 yards for a touchdown in New England's 24-17 victory.

"Troy ran by me and said, `Goodbye,' " recalled Miller. "Then we had a blocked field goal and Troy ran by me again and said, `Goodbye' [Brown lateralled to Antwan Harris for the touchdown]. That one hurt a little bit. In fact, the first thing I did when I got to New England, I went into the locker room and tackled Troy. He was just standing there minding his own business and I finally got him."

Miller characterizes his tackling as "probably as good as [Tom] Brady's punting. Worse-case scenario. I'll hold on to 'em long enough to stall and let the other guys come in and finish it."

The cool Patriot punter was a communications major at Arizona, reads the Wall Street Journal daily, and runs a real estate business in Florida. His candor and irreverence make him a rare find in the robotic world of the almost-perfect Patriots.

The Genius might want to speak to Josh Miller about this. After all, there's always room for improvement.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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