FOXBOROUGH - Perhaps the most anonymous Patriot is the one who’s come the closest to having a perfect season.
Meet Danny Aiken.
A rookie who was claimed by the Patriots Sept. 4 after being waived by the Bills, Aiken handles long-snapping duties for every punt, field goal, and extra point. Not once has an Aiken snap sailed over punter Zoltan Mesko’s head, or bounced back toward him on a field goal or extra point.
All 61 times that Mesko has punted this season (playoffs included), Aiken has delivered a crisp, clean snap. And for all 104 of Stephen Gostkowski’s kicks - 67 extra points, 37 field goal attempts - the ball has been delivered to the holder, Mesko, flawlessly.
Aiken might not be in the same company yet as Lonie Paxton, who spent nine seasons with the Patriots and was the long snapper for all three of the team’s Super Bowl victories. But as Super Bowl XLVI approaches, Aiken should have Patriots fans confident that he’s a capable replacement, mainly because he’s stayed out of the news.
“It’s not a glorified position,’’ Aiken said. “And it doesn’t need to be.’’
Said Gostkowski: “Snapping, kicking, and punting, you’d rather be seen and not heard. Danny’s been great. He comes in here and does his job every day, he’s been very consistent. He’s got a good attitude, which is tough to have sometimes as a rookie because you don’t know any better. He’s fit in very well, and has snapped very well all year.’’
Aiken is the Patriots’ fourth long snapper since Paxton left for the Broncos as a free agent after the 2008 season. Jake Ingram was here for the 2009 season and part of 2010, Matt Katula lasted less than season, and James Dearth was with the team for just one game - the preseason finale - before Aiken became available.
He’s held the job all season, and now finds himself going to the Super Bowl.
“You never know anything,’’ said Aiken, when asked about his unexpected introductory season in the NFL. “All you know is that with hard work and dedication, you can get to the places you want to be.’’
It got Aiken out of Roanoke, Va., where he did everything for Cave Spring High School, playing quarterback and on the defensive line. On a whim, he tried long snapping.
He quickly displayed a flair for it, which eventually attracted college recruiters. Aiken chose Virginia, where he was a four-year letterman. He signed with Buffalo after going undrafted, but the Bills waived him. So he came here, armed with a special skill and hoping to turn it into long-term employment. So far, so good.
A football team’s specialists can be an insular bunch, but Aiken didn’t take long to make an impression on the people he’d be working with most closely.
“You don’t have to spend much time with him to realize that he comes from a good family, good background,’’ Mesko said. “I can’t say enough about him, coming in here as a rookie, straight out of training camp, with limited snaps, numbers, game experience.’’
Mesko is lefthanded and leftfooted, so he wants the ball in a certain spot from Aiken when he punts: left hip ideally, but anything close will do. That’s where Aiken, time after time after time, has put it.
“He does a good job of getting it in my strike zone, from the knees up to the chest, and that’s all we’re asking him to do,’’ Mesko said. “He’s very accurate.’’
There are subtle differences between snapping on punts and snapping back to a holder for kicks. A punt snap is roughly twice as long; a kick snap, while shorter, also needs to be much more accurate, and shouldn’t come in quite as hard, since Mesko’s got to field it and get it to the ground in time for Gostkowski’s kick.
Another difference? On punts, Aiken’s job doesn’t end with the snap; as soon as Mesko boots it, Aiken runs downfield as part of the coverage team, and has made six special teams tackles this season. On kicks, Aiken snaps the ball, then braces for impact.
“He’s done a good job of hanging in there, because he’s always got the 350-pound guy crashing down on him,’’ Mesko said. “The snapper’s always the guy getting picked up off the ground by the other guys.’’
After thousands upon thousands of practice snaps, Aiken said he’s at the point where he could probably tell where the ball is going if his eyes were closed.
“There’s enough muscle memory, you can tell when something’s a little off,’’ Aiken said.
That hasn’t been the case this season, at least noticeably to most fans. Any successful punt or kick means a good snap.
As for the perfect season? The Patriots tried that once, winning their first 18 games four seasons ago. Aiken’s 18-game career has brought success, but he’s not calling it perfect. Far from it.
“Never satisfied,’’ Aiken said. “I won’t say that it’s been a bad season, but I’ll say I can do better.’’
If Aiken is never mentioned during the Super Bowl broadcast, it’s likely a good thing. It means he’s done his job.