Akers' left leg is 49ers' Achilles heel
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 11:06 p.m.
SANTA CLARA — Hey, 49ers, it's Super Bowl time. Do you know where your kicker is (mentally)?
Heading into the biggest game of their lives, coach Jim Harbaugh and his assistants and players are riding a wave of confidence. Their quarterback looks like a combination of Dan Marino and a velociraptor. Their offensive line is brutally powerful. Their defensive front seven is world-class. And yet the team is carrying an asterisk to New Orleans.
David Akers, the most analyzed placekicker of 2012, remains buried in a funk. Akers missed his only attempt in the 49ers' victory over Atlanta in the NFC championship game — from 38 yards, off of fairway-smooth artificial turf, with no wind — meaning he has made just three of his past six attempts (50 percent), 20 of his past 31 (64.5 percent) and 30 of 44 (68.2 percent) on the season. The NFL average this year was 84.4 percent.
“Three inches to the right, and I would have had a perfect game today,” Akers said after the 49ers had beaten the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Which is akin to saying one fewer iceberg, and the Titanic would have had a perfect voyage.
Akers' instability means more than denying the 49ers three points every once in a while. It is no doubt changing the team's strategies. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman wouldn't go near the question Thursday, but it's hard to imagine his play-calling has not been affected by a kicker whose 45-yard field-goal attempts have gone from automatic to adventurous. And you would have to think Harbaugh is more likely to keep his offense on the field on fourth down with Akers on a skid.
Asked whether the 49ers were operating in four-down territory when Anthony Dixon converted a third-and-1 run with a little more than 10 minutes left in the Atlanta game, Roman said: “I can't remember what yard line that was on. (It was the Falcons' 29.) But those things are always talked about really at the beginning of the series, so we can kind of go with that in mind if it is in fact four-down. But that's the area of the field that quite often that'll happen.”
Translation: Yeah, the 49ers probably would have gone for it on fourth-and-1.
Michael Husted has been following Akers' plight rather closely over the past few weeks. Husted kicked for nine NFL seasons, and now is a well-regarded kicking coach. He also happens to be friendly with Billy Cundiff, whom the 49ers brought in to compete with Akers before they waived him on Jan. 18.
Husted has utmost respect for Akers, but can't dismiss his struggles.
“In the Falcons game, that ball didn't deviate at all. It went straight down the left hash,” Husted noted. “I watched it, and I said, ‘That kick would be good from 55 (yards), easy.' Maybe he set up a little too straight. He kicked well in the Packers game. Arizona, it looked like he was aiming a bit.”
Whatever the current explanations of Akers' problems, the origin seems clear. He had surgery for a double sports hernia during the offseason, and traveled to Philadelphia in November for further treatment.
“We had a guy, Todd Peterson, when I was with the Chiefs, who came back from a hernia,” said Mike Stock, who coached special teams in the NFL for 18 seasons. “He struggled. It inhibits a guy's normal abilities. Sometimes it's mental. Sometimes it's physical. Sometimes it's both.”
Stock and Husted both emphasized that they haven't worked directly with Akers, and can't pinpoint the precise nature of his inaccuracy. But Husted said he can easily imagine a chain of events that started with the injury.
“Maybe you start to overcompensate a bit,” he explained. “Then your kicks are off. After a couple misses, then you're dealing with the mental side. You start to question: Am I gonna make this kick? Then maybe you start to aim the ball.”
And that's not good.
“I always tell kickers, ‘Don't aim the field goal. Kick to the target,'” said Husted, who founded the National Camp Series (a network of kicking coaches) and helped develop an algorithm to measure placekicking recruits. “It's like in baseball. You pitch to the target.”
What the 49ers have now may be a pitcher who is aiming his pitches. The question is whether anything can be done about it at this late stage. Harbaugh said Monday that Akers is his Super Bowl kicker and, really, he doesn't have many options. Even Cundiff is now unavailable. The Niners can't re-sign him until he clears waivers, and there will be no waiver transactions before the Super Bowl.
Husted's advice for Akers: Take some deep breaths. His solution when he went through rough patches was to focus on his breathing, which prevented him from overanalyzing a kick and allowed his body to execute what it had been trained to do.
Stock thinks the two-week period between conference title game and Super Bowl will be good for Akers.
“I think an extra week always helps,” he said. “You get your ducks in order. Exhale, and go through the routine that you built your successful career on.”
Stock and Husted agree on one other point. Both fully believe that Akers, a 15-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl pick, can be an asset to the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
“We used to compete against him when he was with the Eagles and I was with Washington,” Stock said. “He was always dynamite — accurate, strong leg, confident. You miss a few and it affects your confidence level. But if it were to come down to a big kick, I'd be very confident in David Akers.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com
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