Super Bowl XLVII: Kickers take center stage in pivotal situations
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - David Akers dropped his head in disbelief and embarrassment as another field goal strayed wide, this one clunking loudly off the upright for all to hear.
A far too familiar scene for the San Francisco 49ers, except this time it didn't cost them a victory. They managed to win at Atlanta and capture the NFC championship and a Super Bowl berth despite yet another monumental miss by the once-spot on Akers.
"As a kicker, you don't want to miss," he said.
This indoor Super Bowl between Baltimore and San Francisco on Sunday could come down to the kickers - the inconsistent 15-year veteran, Akers, in one of the worst seasons of his career just a year after his best, and an undrafted rookie named Justin Tucker who kicked the game-winning field goal in double-overtime at Denver in the divisional playoffs.
Akers hopes it's now his turn in the NFL's showcase. He booted a 63-yarder in the season opener at Green Bay back in September that bounced off the crossbar and through the uprights, so why not do something dramatic again to win a championship?
"I started the season with a big high and it would be awesome to finish the season with a huge high," Akers said.
Tucker can hang on the big stage, too.
He kicked a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime of the Ravens' 38-35 victory over Peyton Manning and Co.
Tucker insists he has long forgotten that kick. No time to get complacent with so much on the line Sunday.
Short memories especially matter in the kicking business. Akers would like to forget his shaky 2012 season altogether.
The 38-year-old pro missed an NFL-worst 13 field goals during the regular season and another in the playoffs.
That left coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers with quite a kicking quandary.
"There's really nothing that's been consistent this season at all, from the performance to all the craziness of everything that's gone on," Akers said. "I'm just going to fall back on 14 years of experience, and I kind of have to throw out 2012 and look forward to positive things hopefully in 2013."
As fans called for Akers' release - and one even made a threat on his life - San Francisco signed Billy Cundiff on Jan. 1 as insurance and to give Akers a push in practice before releasing Cundiff two days ahead of the NFC championship game, on Jan. 18.
Then, at Atlanta, Akers missed again, but Cundiff was no longer around as a backup plan.
"I started the season hitting a 55 and a 50 in the first preseason game, a 63 in the first regular-season game, and we've had some games that have been flat out head scratchers for me," Akers said. "It's been disappointing in some aspects. It's been the highs of highs and the lows of lows at times. ...The whole season's been kind of mind-boggling."
Day after day on the practice field, there's Akers going through his extensive routine of kicking field goals from all distances. Even safety Donte Whitner takes note of the volume.
"I haven't figured out anything," Akers said. "I keep trying to do what I've done over the years and keep the muscle memory firing how it used to."
Like last year, for example. Akers kicked a single-season record 44 field goals.
"You're going to have your ups and your downs, it's about being able to get over the hump," Tucker said. "I've always said the hardest kick to make is the one after a miss and being able to bounce back from an adverse situation. Being able to bounce back is kind of a hallmark of what it means to be a professional athlete."
Tucker found his groove back in training camp and took off, winning the job after no team took a chance on him in the draft.
"I never had the option of coming in and acting or feeling like a rookie," he said. "I was never able to ever think like that. If I did, I would be doing everybody in our building a disservice, because when you're a placekicker you're on an island. It doesn't matter if you're a rookie or a 15-year veteran, you have to perform. You don't have that luxury to study behind somebody for an extended amount of time. You're just thrown into the fire and you've got to do well."
Akers gets it.
Now that they have Tucker, the Ravens see no need to discuss their devastating miss last season in the kicking game - which happened to involve Cundiff.
He botched a potential tying 32-yarder that might have kept Baltimore and Harbaugh's big brother, John, from reaching the Super Bowl.
Now, both Harbaughs are in the Big Easy, John's kicking game seemingly on far more solid ground.
"He's done a fantastic job," Akers said of Tucker. "He started off out of the gates hitting a lot of long field goals with some big winning kicks for them. He has shown that he is no longer a rookie."
Tucker carries some serious swagger at age 23. His warmup routine as he was starting out: "Adam Vinatieri's 48-yarder from the right hash when they won the Super Bowl in 2001. I always started my day with a 48-yarder from the right hash."
That kick lifted Vinatieri's Patriots to a 20-17 victory over the Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl - the last NFL championship played in the Superdome.
Akers knows a winning field goal would do so much to erase some of the tough moments from this year.
He can only hope this season is an anomaly.
Last year, he also set a record for most attempted field goals (52) and most points without a touchdown with 166. That far surpassed the 49ers' previous best for overall points - by Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, who scored 138 points in 1987.
Just so happens Akers spent eight seasons kicking for John Harbaugh, then the Philadelphia special teams coach.
"I just think the world of him, and I've thought the world of the Harbaugh family," Akers said. "So to me, it's kind of bittersweet to be on that side and rooting for him to lose, but this game, absolutely, that's going to be the case."
Jim Harbaugh hasn't given up on his guy.
Akers recently revealed he underwent double hernia surgery last February, then had a flare-up this season when he slipped on the field during practice. After a Nov. 25 game in New Orleans, he returned to the doctor in Philadelphia who performed the surgery to receive an injection.
When asked why he stuck with Akers through all of this, Jim Harbaugh rattled off the reasons:
"What he's done, what he's capable of, the way he's worked at is rehabilitation, and the way he's hitting the ball," the coach said. "We even threw in some competition there three or four weeks back and he prevailed in that environment."
Akers wants to go into Sunday's game with a clear head. He has often looked dejected, finding a spot alone on the bench after misses.
Twice he missed in overtime against the Rams, leading to a tie at home and a road loss at St. Louis.
"I don't know if you can forget anything in life, but I'm going to do my best," he said.
His teammates have no doubt.
"With David Akers, he's missed a few field goals, but I don't think he's worried about that," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He will bounce back. He's been through a lot. There's a time when he's been all the way up here, in the middle and down low. I'm sure this is just a phase for him. Michael Jordan missed 100 shots but he don't worry about that."
Still, Rice hopes the game doesn't come down to Akers. That might be wishful thinking: Three of the last nine championship games were decided by three or fewer points, but none in the past four.
"I'm hoping he can somehow dig deep and be able to become the Akers of old, because when he broke my record he didn't have a problem," Rice said. "Everything was going through the uprights. He struggled a little this year but it might come down to that, and he's going to have to be able to win the game."