FOXBORO - Long-snapping, once seen as just an additional burden to be handled by a full-time football player, has evolved into a separate position that 32 NFL teams can't do without.
But what happens if the long-snapper goes down with an injury? Should the center be forced to assume those duties, or can they be delegated to someone else?
The Patriots are fortunate in that they have a player on the roster that entered the NFL as a long-snapper, before the full extent of his abilities was revealed and his value increased accordingly.
"I've been snapping since I was a 14-year-old kid, so it's definitely like riding a bike," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, whose early days in three NFL with the Saints and Dolphins included long-snapping duties. "You've just got to jump back on. It's pretty easy."
The Patriots are always trying to develop position flexibility among their players, so it makes sense that Ninkovich's hidden talents might be tested some as the season approaches. He reprised his role as a long-snapper late in Friday's 25-21 preseason victory over Tampa Bay, but as he said, no one should expect it to become permanent.
"We need Danny (Aiken)," said the eighth-year veteran, who has posted 191/2 sacks since becoming a Patriot four years ago. "Me being a D-lineman, it only takes one finger dislocation or wrist to not be able to snap a ball."
Ninkovich has confidence in his snapping skills, he said, but they might be stressed after a whole game of battling offensive tackles on every play.
"It's definitely not easy when you're all wet and sweating," he said. "And I wear gloves, so you've got to rip your gloves off, dry your hands and throw a strike."
Honing his skill would also take valuable practice snaps away from him in preparation for his regular job, Ninkovich said.
"I've done it when I was younger in the past," he said, "but it's a little more difficult when you're in the league now, because you've got to do more protecting and you have to work with the holders and the punters a lot more, so the time is kind of tough."
But if the chips were down, the Purdue product believes he'd be a safe bet to get the job done.
"If anything ever happened, I wouldn't be throwing one over his head, or rolling it back there to him," he said.
For the second straight day, Danny Amendola was absent from practice with an undisclosed injury. "He's day-to-day," said Patriots' coach Bill Belichick. News reports disagree on what the cause of his absence is, and his status for Thursday's game at Detroit (7:30 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12) is in doubt
Returner Leon Washington has had only a few opportunities to show what he can do, returning three kids for 66 yards and two punts for 12 yards. But Belichick said he's pleased with what the ex-Seahawk has brought to the Patriots.
"He's done everything we've asked him to do," Belichick said. "He's been healthy, he's been out there every day, he's worked hard, he's got a great attitude, he's got great leadership for our team and for the running back group. I think he's shown up positively in the return game even though he hasn't really had a lot of opportunity. But we still have two more games here; we'll see how it goes."