Hang time is a critical component of a punter's job. The longer the ball is in the air, the better chance his coverage has of limiting the opponent's return.
But what's up in the air in Foxborough this Friday is Zoltan Mesko's status for Sunday's AFC East showdown with the Buffalo Bills.
The second-year punter has been dealing with the first major injury of his football career this week. He suffered it in the third quarter of last week's game versus the San Diego Chargers, when, after unleashing a booming punt from his own end zone, Mesko landed awkwardly on teammate James Ihedigbo, who had been blocked to the ground in front of him.
Mesko's left (kicking) knee buckled and he went down in a heap, clutching his knee in obvious pain. He did return later in the game to hold for a couple of Stephen Gostkowski extra points, but when the Patriots faced a 4th-and-4 from around midfield, head coach Bill Belichick decided to go for it rather than punt. He admitted afterward that Mesko's health played a factor in the move.
While Mesko has dressed for practice every day this week, he has been limited in what he could do. He did, however, acknowledge that he has kicked a few balls this week to test out the knee.
"We've tested it out a little bit, but today's going to be the day to decide it," he announced to a throng of reporters around his locker.
"It's all up to today's practice," Mesko told reporters in the locker room. "I feel good [and] we'll see how we test it out fully. I feel like I put in all I got as far as rehab goes."
The Patriots aren't taking any chances, however. They reportedly worked out two veteran punters this week: Matt Dodge (formerly of the Giants) and Jeremy Kapinos (late of Pittsburgh). A final move might not be made until the weekend, but Mesko stressed that Friday's practice would be the determiner.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to get out there, give it all I got. Ultimately, it's the coaches' decision whether they want to take me to Buffalo. I'd be excited if they would choose so," he said with a smile.
For an athlete dealing with his first significant medical crisis, Mesko seems to be keeping things in proper perspective.
"Not anxious," he explained. "If I can't go, I know I gave it all I got."
He went on to describe the sensation of being hurt on the field, something he'd never before experienced to this degree.
"It was a weird feeling. I knew I still had a duty to Steve and the team to try and make it a go, but, obviously, it wasn't working. I tried helping Steve out with the holding as much as I can.
"That was a first-time thing. First few moments there was kind of strange."
Did he think it was more serious than it seems to have been?
"I had no clue. I'm always an eternal optimist," Mesko replied, "so, I was hoping for the best. It wasn't too bad … Just a little freak thing."
Andre Carter's hit on Chargers QB Philip Rivers appeared to be "just a little freak thing," too (for which he was penalized during the game), but the NFL felt otherwise. The Patriots defensive end was docked a $15,000 fine for leading with his helmet and making contact with Rivers' helmet on a second-quarter takedown last Sunday.
Carter was immediately flagged for roughing the passer, costing the Patriots 15 yards, and thought that was the end of it … until he received a FedEx package from the league office.
"I thought I was home free, but there ended up being a nice little letter on my seat," he joked with reporters. "I kind of knew what it was. I opened it up and it notified me that I got fined."
This is just the second financial penalty of Carter's 11-year NFL career, the first and only other having come in 2002 when he was a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
"But that was a late hit," he was quick to point out. "I'll take credit for that one. That was pretty bad. It was like one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three and boom. Same fine, different year."
The fine, he said, won't make him think twice the next time he steps on the field, but he does intend to appeal.
Defensive back Phillip Adams, signed this week to add depth to an ailing Patriots secondary, stopped briefly to chat with curious reporters gathered at this locker.
"It's been going well," he began. "I'm thankful, blessed for my situation, blessed to be here in this organization. I'm very happy. Just been studying and learning as much as I can."
Does he think he has a chance to be activated on Sunday?
"Well, I'm going to work. I'm going to work hard," he responded. "Whatever the coaches decide, then, that's what I'll do. But I'm going to get ready for Buffalo. My body feels good. I feel rejuvenated … I'll be prepared.
"There's some terminology that's different, but I'm getting used to it. My teammates, my coaches, they're all helping me out."
For details on today's Patriots practice, please visit the PFW blog.