Should we pity Jim Harbaugh’s wife? If Alex Smith’s treatment was any inclination, the coach doesn’t reinforce loyalty. (Then again, Harbaugh has already been divorced, so she accepted the risk.) The 49ers’ leader faces another commitment issue with David Akers.
As San Francisco prepares to host Green Bay in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the team must decide whether to play the struggling kicker or go with newcomer Billy Cundiff. Akers has done little recently to inspire confidence in his reliability, but Harbaugh must stick with family and hope for the best.
Akers is no Jose Cortez, but his 2012-13 performance was eerily similar. The veteran scored 29 of his 42 field goal attempts (69% accuracy, 35th in the NFL), which included a blocked 21 yard try and 6 misses within 40-49 yards. Akers botched 2 field goals in week 17 against the Cardinals, which prompted the 49ers to sign competition.
Cundiff collected unemployment checks for good reason. In 5 games with the Redskins this season, the journeyman connected 7 of his 12 3 pointers, and missed 4 of his last 6 attempts. Cundiff’s 58.3% success rate was last in the league before Washington cut ties. Harbaugh’s older brother (John Harbaugh, the coach of the Ravens) released the kicker in the offseason, which makes the signing even more peculiar.
Whether you favor one man over the other, this is true: regular season accomplishments are no guarantee in the playoffs. Ask Gary Anderson, who was the first kicker in NFL history with a perfect season (35 for 35 in 16 contests) before missing a game-clinching 38 yarder against the Falcons in the 1999 NFC Championship. Atlanta went on to defeat the hometown Vikings in overtime.
It takes a hard lesson for losing teams to recognize the value of placekicking, and unless you are a blessed with the company of an Adam Vinatieri, 4th downs in enemy territory can be uncomfortably riveting.
For these high-wire situations, would you hire a kicker cast aside time-and-time again, or a 6-time All-Pro talent who booted an NFL-record tying 63 yard field goal 4 months ago?
Akers is slowing dying at 38 years of age, but NFL specialists have been commonly effective in their early to mid-40s. (Secretly, running backs are envious of placekickers and punters.)
His confidence may be shot, and his body may be sore, but Akers needs firm belief from his coach. The 15 year pro has missed his share of game-influencing kicks, and he has proven to move on from these moments, but Harbaugh’s patience has worn thin, and understandably so. But flirting with scrapheap players like Cundiff creates doubt. All Akers need is another chance, as risky as it seems.
So let’s be fair. Harbaugh’s most logical solution is to pick his field goal/extra point kicker based on pre-game warm-ups. If it’s a dead heat, the edge goes to Akers and Cundiff handles kickoff duties, to allow the elder to focus on a single important task. If the 6-time Pro Bowler falters, sit his butt down and away from the rest of the roster, so his negative qi is quarantined.
Faith goes a long way, and if Harbaugh wants the Lombardi Trophy, he will need to seal his fate with Akers. The veteran will obligate his contract.
To see why the 49ers should play Billy Cundiff, click here.