A contrast of kickers, but will one be called on to win XLVII?
NEW ORLEANS -- This is a tale of two feet -- one left, one right; one belonging to a 38-year old veteran of 15 NFL seasons, the other to a 23-year-old rookie -- either of which could determine the outcome if Super Bowl XLVII evolves into a last-second nail-biter.
This season started so well for lefty David Akers, who tied an NFL record in the 49ers' season-opening victory in Green Bay when he booted a 63-yard field goal that struck the crossbar and bounced over on the final play of the first half. Coming on the heels of a 2011 season during which he set league records for most field goals (44), most field goal attempts (52) and most points without scoring a touchdown (166), the longtime kicker felt blissful.
"It was like, wow, this is going to be another dream season," Akers said Wednesday.
Then, quicker than you could say boink, Akers' season unraveled. He had kicks blocked. He had kicks that drifted to the left and hooked to the right. By the time the regular season ended, one of the most successful kickers in league history had misfired on 13 of 42 attempts, the worst percentage (69) of his career. He then hit the left upright on a 38-yard attempt in the NFC Championship game in Atlanta, an error that was overridden by San Francisco's 28-24 come-from-behind victory that vaulted the 49ers into the Super Bowl, where they will meet the Ravens Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The 49ers will come into the game with plenty of confidence in Colin Kaepernick, their wunderkind, second-year, read-option quarterback; in a Frank Gore-led rushing offense that averaged 155.7 yards a game in the regular season; and in a built-tough defense that allowed the second-fewest points.
Their kicker? Well, maybe not so much. The 49ers were so worried about Akers' inconsistency that they brought in former Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff -- the guy whose missed 32-yard attempt in last year's AFC Championship Game against New England thwarted the Ravens from reaching the Super Bowl one year earlier -- when the playoffs began.
Akers and Cundiff had a kicking competition, and Cundiff was signed for San Francisco's first playoff game, against Green Bay. After that game, the 49ers released Cundiff. They have now placed their trust, if not their full confidence, in Akers, who has kicked 36 field goals in the postseason (most of them for the Eagles) and once strung together 19 in a row.
So the question was asked of Akers: How would he feel if the outcome of the Super Bowl came down to a last-second kick by him?
"I think any kicker, and any player, will truly say, [he'd] love to have an absolute blowout," Akers said, "because then it's fun the whole time, you just relax. But if it comes down to where you have to make a kick, obviously I'm going to go out and give it the best shot I have and hope that it comes out on the positive side for us. I've never been a guy to guarantee anything. So that's what I'm going to do -- give it the best effort I have.
Akers' Super Bowl opposite, Ravens rookie Justin Tucker, would embrace the opportunity to have his right foot determine the outcome. He spoke confidently Wednesday of a game-winning scenario.
"I'll say this, I'll be thankful for whatever opportunity I get," said Tucker, a University of Texas alum who was signed as a free agent and eventually beat out Cundiff for the kicking spot on Baltimore's roster this season. "If Morgan [Cox, the Ravens' long-snapper] and Sam [Koch, punter and holder on field goals] and I can get out there and do our thing like we know how to do, we always feel like we have a chance. That would be a dream."
It's already been a dream season for Tucker. He connected on 30 of 33 field goal attempts during the regular season -- a performance Akers called "just astronomical as a rookie" -- then hit a 47-yarder in Denver that lifted the Ravens to a double-overtime victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos in an AFC divisional playoff game.
After a postseason run of three victories, two of which came on the road, Tucker and the No. 4-seeded Ravens are standing at the threshold of another Super Bowl championship to go with the one Baltimore won after the 2000 season.
"We're at the precipice of greatness," Tucker said.
A devout Catholic who makes the sign of the cross before every kick, a ritual he began when he started playing football at Westlake (Austin, Texas) High, Tucker has a passion for music and entertainment. During a fifth-grade talent contest, Tucker sang "Danke Schoen," doing his best Wayne Newton-Ferris Bueller impersonation, as he pranced down the steps and looked directly at some teachers who were in the audience. Tucker also has been known to sing Italian opera to his Ravens teammates.
"I guess I've never been unfamiliar to being on the big stage, whether that's a fifth-grade talent show or the Super Bowl," Tucker mused. "That's kind of funny to say that, just realizing it now."
Despite he and Akers both belonging to the fraternal order of NFL kickers, Tucker elected to pass up an opportunity to offer either advice or empathy to his elder.
"I'm not going to even touch on that. I'm not going to talk about anybody who's not wearing black and purple this week," Tucker said. "What I can say is I highly respect David and the very successful career he has put together. He's actually a guy I've looked at since I started playing in high school and through college as one of the elite kickers in this league."
One of the elite kickers in the league has struggled throughout the most puzzling season of his career. Akers recalled three field goal attempts -- a 55-yarder against the Jets and a 51-yarder against the Rams, which both missed by inches, and a 50-yarder against the Saints that sailed directly over the upright -- that could have changed his season.
"It's like, my goodness, if I could have a foot, I'd have made three or four more kicks," he said. "We're not off by a lot."
Akers, who made his first six field goal attempts of the season before trouble set in, doesn't believe he has lost his kicking touch -- "It's not like the wheels have fallen off. It's not like you can't do it" -- nor does he believe the problem is in his noggin. "A lot of it is misjudgment of elements at times. It happened in New York, it happened in Arizona. You set up to where you think it's going to go, and it doesn't do that."
49ers special teams coach Brad Seely said, "It's just minor, minor things. It's like a guy who can't quite sink that putt. ... I think he's a confident guy. He's done this too long not to be confident. He's been successful, he's been on big stages before. I think he's confident, and I think we still have good confidence in him that he'll go out and perform."
During the offseason, Akers underwent double hernia surgery. He didn't feel any after-effects until early November, when he kicked off during practice on a rainy field, slipped and went flying.
"I kind of Charlie Brown'd it," Akers said. "I landed on my shoulder."
It wasn't until several weeks later, after the 49ers had played a game here, that Akers returned to Philadelphia to be treated by his surgeon. The injury apparently hasn't flared up since then.
Unlike players at other positions, kickers face something of an unfair perception; they're expected to make the kick every time they step on the field, whether it's a chip shot from inside the 20 or a howitzer-like attempt from behind mid-field. A quarterback can overthrow a receiver, a receiver can drop a pass, and a linebacker can miss a tackle -- and those players can just recalculate and come back for the next play. From the perspective of fans -- and even some of his teammates -- a kicker isn't given such forgiveness.
"The only thing I can compare it to is being a relief pitcher in baseball, where you may get called into the game, you may not," Akers said. "And when you come into the game, when you are called up, you're supposed to make the play that helps your team. So whether it's the opening kickoff, the first extra point, or a last-second field goal, I try to do the best I can."
Akers and the 49ers are hoping his best will be good enough on Sunday night. At least Akers knows one thing. Punter Andy Lee, his holder, won't pull a Lucy and snatch the ball away at the last instant.
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