Is this the Year of the Kicker?
As the NFL’s greatest year of field-goal kicking unfolds, San Francisco’s David Akers has already earned special mention.
Akers became only the fourth kicker to ever make a 63-yard field goal, hitting it in a season-opening victory over Green Bay. That momentous play foreshadowed the unprecedented accuracy numbers being posted by his peers.
According to STATS LLC, the league-wide field-goal percentage through the season’s first five weeks stood at 88.6 percent. The NFL record is 84.5 set in 2008.
The record-setting pace extends to the most difficult attempts. Kickers are connecting on 80.9 percent of field goals tries from 40-49 yards and 70.7 percent from 50-plus. Since those categories were kept since 1967, the best respective marks for a season are 74.5 percent (2008) and 64.3 percent (2011).
Akers has made 10 of his 13 field-goal tries (76.9 percent) with misses from 55 and 40 yards as well as one blocked 43-yarder. While that puts Akers below the league average, the 49ers have the comfort of knowing that the 37-year-old has proven one of the NFL’s most tried-and-true specialists under pressure during his 14 NFL seasons.
Akers spoke with FOXSports.com earlier this week at team headquarters about the state of NFL kicking, his career highs and low, signing with the 49ers after 12 years with Philadelphia and life outside of football.
Q: Kickers are making field goals at a record-setting percentage. Why is this happening?
Akers: "A lot of guys have just gotten so good. I think it starts at a younger age where these guys are going to camps and really taking it to a higher level of technique with coaching and breaking down film. It’s not just, ‘Go out to a field and make a kick.’ If you watch a linebacker, they’re bigger, faster and stronger (than in the past). Kickers are stronger. They’re more accurate."
Q: The rookie class with St. Louis’ Greg Zuerlein and Minnesota’s Blair Walsh also is extremely impressive.
Akers: "And don’t forget (Baltimore’s Justin) Tucker. I look at those guys compared to (Dan) Bailey, who has done a great job for the (Dallas) Cowboys. Not taking anything away from Bailey, but these guys’ legs are ginormous. To be able to have a strong leg and accurate is a major plus in the NFL. I think this year more than any other I’ve seen more of a jump. Usually, you see a guy who’s pretty good here and there. But this is a good crop of kickers for rookies coming out."
Q: How different is kicking in San Francisco than in Philadelphia?
Akers: "I wouldn’t say too much as far as getting used to a new environment. The only thing that’s crazy about Candlestick (Park) is they say you can never predict what (the wind) is going to do. Last week (against Buffalo), we were going into the wind. In the second quarter, we had the wind for the first half of that quarter and then it shifted for the day. It was like, ‘Wait a minute? What just happened here?’ (49ers) punter Andy Lee told me, ‘The first time you realize you can’t figure out Candlestick, you’ll have it figured out.’ That’s probably the biggest difference —the changing of the winds."
Q: Is kicking a 63-yard field goal considered the ultimate for kickers?
Akers: "It’s a neat mark. There are guys who can definitely make that kick right now, guys who could surpass it easily. But the problem is finding the right opportunity. Getting the opportunity and being able to make it, it was definitely the pinnacle of cool kicks for me."
Q: On the flip side, there has been some turnover at the position like with Billy Cundiff this week in Washington.
Akers: "I was really kind of shocked by that. Billy missed a few longer field goals. But other than that, you’re going to have an ebb and flow of things. I don’t really know what went into that (decision). I think Billy is a great kicker. He’s done a great job. He was a Pro Bowler a couple years ago. You don’t just go from being in the Pro Bowl to not knowing how to kick. I do see that teams are doing this a little more with guys. They kind of have a knee-jerk reaction. Again, I don’t know the inside story and whether there was more to it than just performance on the field but my hat goes off to Billy for the career he’s had. Hopefully, he can latch on somewhere other than the 49ers (laughs)."
Q: How does a guy slide like that? Is it confidence?
Akers: "I think any player is going to have affected confidence if they’re not doing what they feel like they should be doing. But sometimes you’ve just got to stay strong and stay the course. You have to say, ‘I’ve been here before. I’m going to make some and miss some.’ What you try and do is not get too excited about a make and, conversely, if you miss one, it’s not the end of the world. Obviously, the biggest thing we want to stay away from is missing a kick that changes the outcome of a game. There are going to be times you miss. Let’s try to limit that to the time when it doesn’t affect the team winning."
Q: When I ask you what is the greatest kick you ever made, what first pops in your head?
Akers: "You know what? It’s not even the kick. It’s a grouping of kicks. In 2000, (the Eagles) were playing the (Pittsburgh) Steelers. We were down by 10 with three minutes to go. We scored a touchdown. We did an onside kick and caught the ball at 9-3/4 (yards). Back then, you were able to take a five-yard penalty and kick it again. We got (the kick) again, went down the field, and with time running out I ran onto the field with the field goal unit and kicked one as time expired. We tied the game, went into overtime and I hit the game-winning kick. That was kind of the coolest event because that all happened with under three minutes in the game."
Q: What was your toughest moment and how did you bounce back from it?
Akers: "I guess it was just dealing with missing a couple of kicks against the Packers (in the 2010 season playoffs). It was a tough weekend for my family (Akers’ daughter was dealing with a serious health issue at the time). I don’t think I ever really got to process the fact that was my last game as an Eagle. And then to think at one point I never thought I would be anywhere else. I thought I would retire there. It wasn’t meant to be.
"I’m really happy with the situation I’m in now. It could end tomorrow and I’d still be happy with everything that happened. Coming out here was a new experience. I got to meet a whole lot of new people, not just within the organization but on the West Coast. I never would have had that opportunity. Being a spiritual guy, I really believe all things work together for the good of those who love God. Coming out here, I feel like He put some people in my life saying, ‘Look, I’ve got your back. This is who we’re going to align you with out here.’ By doing that, it has really strengthened me and my family. I embrace that."
Q: Is your Kicks for Kids Foundation (<a href="http://www.davidakerskicksforkids.org/ target=" _cke_saved_href="http://www.davidakerskicksforkids.org/ target=" _blank"=""><font color="#0000FF">www.davidakerskicksforkids.org</font></a>) still going strong?</strong></p> <p> <strong>Akers: </strong>"It is. It’s been a little tough because getting sponsorships back in an area where you’re not playing or active in anymore, people kind of move on to different athletes and things like that. We struggle that way, but we’re still an open 501(c)(3) (a registered nonprofit). I also have been doing outreaches with my ministry in New Jersey. I preach out here and do different messages to different groups. My foundation helps sponsor with the Ronald McDonald House giving tickets to kids so they can come with their families. These families have to be around the hospital for so long. It gets them out of saying, ‘OK, we’re stuck here at the hospital or the house.’ The great thing is the 49ers have a program for guys with foundations to purchase tickets and let families go to the games. It’s a win-win situation for everybody."</p> <p> <strong>Q: Finally, I know you’re an avid race fan who has toyed with the idea of getting involved in that business when you’re done playing. Can the rush of racing replace the rush of playing football?</strong></p> <p> <strong>Akers: </strong>"Listen, I’m a huge race fan. I love racing. I love getting in a car and going fast. You’re either first or you’re last, right? But the reality is that if you have $1 million in racing, you need to start out with $2 million because you will lose, lose, lose in the racing field as far as money goes. It’s not an investment I will be getting to. But would I love to get out and drive? Absolutely. There’s a great rush when you’re going 160 mph. And then you start talking about those larger tracks when you’re getting up toward 200 mph? That’s a pretty good rush."</p> <p></p>