That was a decision Harbaugh made early, perhaps to inspire confidence in either his kicker or his fan base, or even in himself. Yet his decisions over the passt month spoke to a lack of confidence, not an abundance of it.
The kick that typified Akers’ season took place this past Sunday, in the third quarter of the NFC championship game against the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers trailed by three points. Akers trotted onto the field, conducted his usual routine and sailed a 38-yard attempt toward the goal posts. The kick struck the left upright and bounced no good into the end zone below.
Akers looked despondent. He sat on the bench and stared into space. His team scored another touchdown and rendered irrelevant the latest error from their kicker, who otherwise played well Sunday, with five kickoffs that went for touchbacks and four successful extra points.
Afterward, Akers told The San Francisco Chronicle he was three inches from a perfect game, which is both true and precisely the point. Super Bowls have been, and will be, decided by less.
“This has been the toughest year for him," Jerrold Colton, Akers’ agent, said Tuesday. “He hasn’t performed up to his usual standards. No one is harder on David than himself. By the same token, he still has tremendous confidence."
Akers made All-Pro in 2011 with a season among the best at his position. He set league records for field goals in one season (44) and points for a kicker (166). His successful attempt against the New York Giants tied the NFC title game, which went into overtime. He did all this in his first year with San Francisco, the perfect revenge on the Philadelphia Eagles, who let him walk after 12 seasons. His two misses against Green Bay in the 2010 playoffs (41 and 29 yards) were a key reason for the Eagles’ 21-16 loss and perhaps why he was not retained.
His charmed existence in San Francisco continued in the season opener this year, when his 63-yard try against the Packers hit the crossbar — and still went between the uprights, tying an NFL record for distance. Not bad for a man who would turn 38 in December.
Akers, in fact, converted his first six attempts. Then everything fell apart. He shanked kicks with alarming regularity, missed right and left and short, but left most often. He totaled 13 unsuccessful field-goal attempts in the regular season, making for his worst conversion rate (69 percent) since 1998.
The question most pertinent to the Super Bowl is whether Akers’ struggles will change the 49ers’ strategy and if so, how? Their final regular-season contest, a home victory over Arizona, provided a small window into Harbaugh’s thinking.
In that game, Akers missed two attempts. At one point, he threw his helmet on the sideline. The crowd booed him, starting before he missed anything. Harbaugh apparently shared their frustration, twice electing to attempt to convert on fourth down and long in Arizona territory rather than let Akers perform a task central to his job description.
After that game, Akers shut down his Twitter account after at least one irate fan threatened “miss one more field goal you about to get your life ended," the sentence posted in all capital letters. He also told local reporters that last February he had undergone surgery to repair a double hernia, an injury that flared up enough during the season that Akers said he went back to the doctor who performed the operation for treatment.
Harbaugh signed Billy Cundiff before the playoff run, an odd decision, if only for the timing. Cundiff, after all, botched a crucial field goal in last season’s AFC championship game that would have forced overtime. He was playing for Baltimore, coached by Harbaugh’s brother and Super Bowl coaching counterpart, John.
The 49ers staged a kicking competition before their most important game of the season, kept Cundiff on the roster for their playoff victory against the Green Bay Packers, then cut him before the Falcons game. Harbaugh’s actions did not indicate a high level of confidence in Akers, who only compounded the issue when his kick against Atlanta struck the upright.
Now the 49ers find themselves in the Super Bowl, behind a formidable defense and a blossoming young quarterback and an offensive line as good as any in the NFL. It is almost a complete team. Almost.
Akers, of course, will continue with the mentality that carried him through 15 hazardous years, past dozens of challengers for his job, all the way to the most critical game of his career.
“He believes the next kick," Colton said, “is going through the uprights."