In a world of behemoths, the placekicker is usually the average-sized guy (we'll excuse the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski at this point in the discussion). But the reality of pro football is that the little guy has a huge role. That's why there's so much concern surrounding the 49ers' David Akers.
The highlight shows are full of clips showing NFL wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks finding the end zone. When they score, they dance and preen and spike the ball.
But here's the reality: week in and week out, the placekicker is the engine of an NFL offense. The league's top 20 scorers this past season were kickers. 30 of the top 31 (please excuse Houston running back Arian Foster for crashing the party at #21). And in a weird confluence, Akers and Super Bowl opposite number Justin Tucker finished in a virtual tie. Akers made two more extra points; Tucker made one more field goal.
So both of these guys are top-10 scorers. But nobody's wringing their hands each time Tucker lines up a kick. It's Akers and his late-season slump that are making headlines.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tried to settle this down by announcing the day after the NFC Championship game that Akers is his guy for the Super Bowl. But while Akers nailed a 36-yarder in the Green Bay playoff game, this is a "what have you done for me lately" business and the 38-yarder that whacked the left upright in Atlanta is the one everyone remembers.
What's up with Akers? Who knows? We know he underwent double-hernia surgery less than a year ago and required followup treatment two months ago. We know his leg strength isn't the problem; the Falcons never got a chance to return an Akers kickoff because he drove them so deep. We know he's generally been missing left--pushing the ball--so we wonder if he's physically having trouble pulling through the ball.
Or is it "all in his head"? Bay Area News Group reporter Cam Inman tracked down the guys who kicked for the Niners in their five Super Bowl wins. All of them back Akers. And Ray Wersching put it in words: "It's all mental".
Wersching and his fellow kickers would know. They're the little guys who play a high-stakes game. They know the pressure of being the fellow in the clean shirt whose few seconds of work each weekend have so much to do with the outcome.
Pro golfers like to say you "drive for show and putt for dough". It's kind of like that in the NFL. The 49ers have to hope for one of two things: either see Akers snap out of it, or put the ball so close to the metaphorical hole that it won't matter.