Cundiff tees it up to test himself at Candlestick Park
Harbaugh nears decision on newcomer kicks windy stadium
Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.
SANTA CLARA — Billy Cundiff took a field trip to San Francisco on Monday, and it wasn't to the zoo — though the 49ers' kicking competition has begun to resemble a circus in some ways.
Speaking with reporters in late morning, Jim Harbaugh said that Cundiff and David Akers would be heading to Candlestick Park later that day to alternate kicks in the stadium's infamous shifting winds. But as first reported by Comcast SportsNet, photos later emerged that showed Cundiff — and not Akers — kicking at Candlestick in front of special teams coordinator Brad Seely and special teams assistant Tracy Smith. Long snapper Brian Jennings and holder Andy Lee also participated.
Earlier, Harbaugh had acknowledged that the kick-off had a “leader in the clubhouse.” To the surprise of no one who has observed Harbaugh's interaction with the media, he would not divulge which player held the edge.
The competition, which began at practices last Thursday and Friday, will continue at least through Tuesday. It may extend a lot longer than that. Harbaugh said there is a good chance both kickers will be on the roster for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, and that it's conceivable both men would be active for the game.
Imagine the left-footed Akers trotting onto the field for kicks from the left hashmark, and the right-footed Cundiff taking his turn for kicks from the right hash.
Asked when he would like to make a decision on his placekicker, Harbaugh replied: “Like we said at the beginning, there's no set date or time on that. When it happens.”
The 49ers' hesitancy may have something to do with the lack of a perfect option. Akers has made just 22 of his past 34 attempts. He recently revealed that he had surgery for a double sports hernia during the offseason, and traveled to Philadelphia in November for further treatment from the doctors who performed the operation.
Akers clearly isn't the machinelike kicker who made the Pro Bowl a year ago while setting an NFL record with 166 points without a touchdown.
His current rival isn't exactly a can't-miss prospect. Cundiff finished the 2011 season by shanking a 32-yard field-goal attempt that denied the Baltimore Ravens a trip to the Super Bowl. He was 7 of 12 in five games for Washington this season before the Redskins let him go.
Accosted by reporters in the locker room Monday, Lee said he had no additional details on the session at Candlestick.
“Just do my job,” is how he explained his role. “You know, hold for a righty, hold for a lefty. Do whatever I can to help both guys, that's my job, and that's just the way I gotta look at it.”
The holder claimed it isn't difficult to go back and forth between opposite-footed kickers, though it means turning his body to face Jennings with different shoulders.
“I learned (from the) right, so I did that most of my career until Joe (Nedney) came in seven years ago,” said Lee, who doubles as 49ers punter. “But ... two years ago, we had Jeff Reed in here and a couple other righties when Joe was having some issues with his leg problems or whatnot. So I'm used to doing that.”
Kicking at Candlestick isn't anything new for Akers, of course. But Cundiff, despite playing in 106 games for five NFL teams, had never kicked there before Monday. That could be an advantage for the incumbent.
“Playing somewhere and being used to the conditions does make it a little easier to judge what's going to happen there,” Lee said. “ ... I can definitely say that it would give me an advantage over somebody else that hasn't punted in there. But I don't know necessarily about field goals.”
Akers has not been 100-percent responsible for the 49ers' kicking problems, as Harbaugh emphasized Monday.
“There's some other issues we're attempting to fix, too,” he said. “We've got to shore up our protection. That needs to be better. We've had too much penetration. We've had extra points tipped. We've gotten split at the wing. There has to be understanding that needs to improve as well.”
But the pressure, and fans' ire, has fallen directly on the shoulders of Akers, a respected 15-year veteran who, gauged by percentage of field goals made, is having his worst season since 1999. Akers received so many vulgar tweets — not to mention a few death threats — in late December that he shut down his Twitter account last week. He has been booed at Candlestick, too, despite his body of work there.
It pains Lee to watch. And yet he knows he can't root for Akers in his duel with Cundiff.
“I think I've gotta take that out of it,” Lee said. “Like I said, I gotta do my job, because I know if other things were going on and somebody could affect the way I play, I wouldn't want that happening. So I just gotta swallow everything I have inside me and go out and do whatever I can to help each guy the best I can.”
Because a single kick can be the difference between winning a postseason game and beginning the offseason. The 49ers need their kicker confident and calm — whoever that kicker may be.
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