David Akers missed more field goals this season than any Super Bowl-bound kicker in 29 years, an ominous sign for his San Francisco 49ers, who are favored to win the championship by just about the margin his left foot could provide.
After setting a National Football League record with 44 field goals during his first year in San Francisco in 2011, Akers missed 13 regular-season kicks, the most in the NFL. He also banged a 38-yard attempt off the upright in the 49ers’ 28-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football Conference title game on Jan. 20, the first time all season he failed to make a field goal in a game.
A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Akers has missed at least one field goal in six of San Francisco’s last eight games. Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Cowher says Akers’s struggles should be a serious concern for the 49ers, who are favored by 3 1/2 points over the Baltimore Ravens for the Feb. 3 contest in New Orleans, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s Super Book.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it will impact the play-calling of Jim Harbaugh,” Cowher said, referring to the 49ers’ coach. “It will be very interesting to see what develops. It definitely has to be a concern.”
The last Super Bowl kicker with more misses than Akers was Mark Moseley, who hit 33 of 47 attempts for the Washington Redskins in 1983. Moseley missed a field goal and an extra-point attempt in the Redskins’ 38-9 Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Raiders to finish that season on Jan. 22, 1984.
Moseley’s 70.2 percent success rate that season was almost in line with the leaguewide average of 71.5 percent. Akers’s 69 percent success rate (29-of-42) this season was the worst of his 14-year career and below the NFL average of 83.7 percent, which was the second-highest in history. Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker has made 33 of 35 field goals, including both tries in the playoffs.
“It’s one of those things where it has been kind of a head-scratcher,” said Akers, 38. “But I’m still going to be positive about going into this game. Sixty minutes away from the possibility of being a world champion, so that’s a cool thought.”
The pressure hasn’t been only on the field. Akers said on Jan. 3 that he had received death threats on Twitter, informed the NFL of the matter and closed his account on the social network.
The accuracy of NFL kickers has steadily climbed through the Super Bowl era.
In 1972, the hash marks on the NFL field that set the boundaries from where the kicks take place were narrowed to 18 feet, 6 inches apart, the same width as the goalposts. With fewer sharp angles, kickers made more than 60 percent of attempts for the first time, at 61.1 percent.
In 1980, the leaguewide average was 64.1 percent. It climbed to 74.4 percent in 1990 and to 79.7 percent in 2000, according to the NFL. Over the past six seasons, kickers have made 82.9 percent of their field goal attempts, including a record 84.5 percent in 2008.
The 49ers brought in Billy Cundiff before the start of the playoffs before sticking with Akers, who kicked in the Super Bowl for the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2004 season. The addition of Cundiff came after Akers missed two field goals in the 49ers’ regular-season finale against the Arizona Cardinals. In that game, Harbaugh decided against trying field goals of 47 and 53 yards to convert fourth-down plays in Arizona territory.
Cowher said Akers’s miss in the NFC championship game may also have an impact on Harbaugh’s decision-making, as it came in a domed stadium without weather or wind being factors. The conditions will be similar in the Superdome in New Orleans.
“There is no doubt that it’s kind of a tough call to change kickers,” Cowher, who won the 2006 Super Bowl coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers and now is an NFL analyst for CBS Sports, said by telephone. “Harbaugh’s shown he’s loyal to Akers. There will be a lot to answer for, though, if he struggles.”
Four of 46 Super Bowls have been decided by a field goal in the closing seconds.
Adam Vinatieri lifted the New England Patriots to Super Bowl victories in 2002 and 2004 with winning kicks of 48 and 41 yards. In 1991, Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills was wide right on a 47-yard attempt with four seconds left, giving the New York Giants a 20-19 win. Twenty years earlier, Jim O’Brien kicked a 32-yard field goal with five seconds left as the Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys 16-13. O’Brien, who was a rookie, had missed 15 of his 34 field-goal attempts during the regular season.
Akers said the pressure NFL placekickers face can be like that of a relief pitcher in baseball who’s brought in at crucial late-game situations.
“Hopefully you’re going to do good when you go on the field, because it’s pretty obvious when you don’t,” Akers said this week. “There’s no gray area.”