In 2011, the 49ers' kicking game was among the league's best. David Akers led the league with 44 field goals made and broke the NFL record for most points in a season by a kicker (166). Just a few weeks into 2012, however, that model of excellence was decimated. Shortly after bouncing an NFL record 63 yard field goal through the uprights in Green Bay on opening day, David Akers's name became synonymous with the label "Achilles heel". Well, up until Michael Crabtree's recent mishap (too soon?). Once a veritable lock, Akers's consistency plummeted when he re-aggravated a double sports hernia early in the season. From that point on, nothing was a chip shot and it seemed as if the field goals sailed wide before he even put his foot to the ball.
So here we stand, a little over three months until (cue topical segue) ... regular season kickoff. With so much offseason chatter dedicated to Kaepernick in year two, the Crabtree incident, Anquan Boldin's commendable OTA performance, and the defense looking to regain form, I decided that the kicking game, arguably the most under-appreciated aspect of football, garnered some discussion. What does a change at the position mean for San Francisco? What does newcomer Phil Dawson bring to the table?
To the relief of the 49ers Faithful (and likely a large portion of the Niners roster), San Francisco cut ties with David Akers this offseason and signed Phil Dawson, the longtime leg of Cleveland. Dawson has a proven track record, ranking 12th in all-time career field goal percentage. Akers, on the other hand, ranks 31st. Perhaps more importantly, Dawson ranked second in the NFL in field goal percentage last season, notching a 93.5% success rate. With that said, it appears on paper that the 49ers hit a homerun in signing Dawson and should see an immediate improvement. But virtually all acquisitions come with at least a couple question marks, and Dawson is no exception.
The first area of concern is his age. At 38 years old, Dawson is the exact same age as the kicker the 49ers just jettisoned, so they're not getting any younger at the position. Age is less of a worry at the kicker position, but it's never ideal to have a player approaching (or in the midst of) the twilight of his career. Injury is more likely as players get older and it's a more difficult road to recovery (just ask David Akers). Diminishing leg strength is also a concern with older players but the Niners can find some comfort in looking back on Dawson's 2012 campaign. Not only did Dawson lead the league by kicking seven field goals from beyond 50 yards, but he was a perfect 7 of 7 doing so.
Another factor that warrants consideration whenever the 49ers bring in a new kicker, is how will they handle the swirling, vexing winds of Candlestick Park? Like anything in football, it's about putting in practice time. Dawson has already begun offseason workouts at Candlestick in trying to master the park's fickle conditions. His time in Cleveland should also help him in that regard. The "Mistake by the Lake" is known for its poor weather conditions and FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Browns, lies right on Lake Erie. That makes for nasty wind gusts and extremely cold weather as the season trudges on; not the most ideal weather for booting pigskin. San Francisco's warmer weather will be a welcome change for Dawson and if he can navigate through Cleveland's tumultuous weather, it stands to reason that he'll be able to acclimate himself with the wacky wind patterns and soggy field conditions at the ‘Stick.
Touchbacks are another facet of the kicking game that bears monitoring. Battling that aggravated double hernia, Akers struggled to get as much power underneath the ball as he used to, and it noticeably waned as games wore on. Nevertheless, the 49ers still managed to kick touchbacks 48% of the time last season. The Browns, on the other hand, kicked touchbacks on 38.96% of their kickoffs, but considering that miserable weather in Cleveland and the fact that their division foes reside in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, it's not all that shabby. Dawson will now have the luxury of teeing off in kicker-friendly stadiums like Arizona, St. Louis and Seattle now that he's a part of the NFC West.
The 49ers carry a large target on their back now that they're regarded as one of the NFL's elite. Additionally, the division has gained considerable strength during the offseason. Teams will always bring their A-game against San Francisco, which means there are very few "gimme" games. For a point of reference, look to last season when the Niners tied and lost to the Rams (thanks in large part to the woes of Akers). Football is, indeed, a game of inches and that's where Dawson can make a big impact for a team who may see its fair share of close ones. It's never ideal and it's never the plan at the onset, but kickers can be the difference between a win and a loss, a champion and the runner-up (see Norwood, Scott). It's a thankless job and it rarely gets its due, but kicking can be just as vital to success as any other position on the field.
In Dawson, the 49ers are hoping to regain what they lost once David Akers fell from grace: a grizzled, consistent veteran with a strong leg, who can deliver when called upon. The accomplished resume he compiled in a difficult Cleveland atmosphere certainly bodes for a favorable outcome. His prior experience with special teams coach Brad Seely is a boon as well. And in all honesty, how could he possibly be worse than Akers was last year? So long as he stays healthy and gets a grip on the weather at Candlestick, the Niners should receive a significant return on their investment.