The images of David Akers' 13 missed field goals from last season have been slowly fading like Magic Ink. A bad scribbling that never happened. Or vanished without a trace.
After Frank Gore, Dawson has been the 49ers' offensive MVP this season, converting 20 consecutive field goals and 26-of-29 overall. He's also a perfect 14-of-14 on attempts 39 yards or less and hasn't missed once in the second half of any game.
While the 49ers haven't exactly lived up to the expectation of being the NFL's most talented team, several of their offseason acquisitions have been outstanding, and Dawson has provided the defending NFC champions the biggest upgrade with his Vinatieri-like performance from the field.
So how can having a descent kicker be a bad thing?
As the 49ers gear up for the stretch run and the playoffs, they need their biggest weapon to be on offense, not special teams. More specifically, they need to score points by the arm of Colin Kaepernick, not the foot of Phil Dawson.
Now, the statistics would suggest that I'm wrong. The 49ers are currently ranked seventh overall in red-zone scoring, and their success past the 20-yard line is one of the reasons they're averaging 25 points per game. The caveat? Most of their touchdowns have come against teams that aren't very good at playing football.
When facing physical defenses like Seattle and Carolina, the offense has often failed to generate the desired six points in the red zone, at times even coughing up the ball in heart-stopping fashion.
Kaepernick's first interception of the season on an off-target pass to Vernon Davis at the goal line was a turning point in the 49ers' lopsided defeat against the Seahawks. Last week against the same team, the 49ers wasted a huge opportunity to put the game out of reach when Byron Maxwell intercepted an underthrown pass by Kaepernick near the corner of the end zone.
Earlier in the game, the 49ers made two red-zone trips, one of them on a drive that started at the 16-yard line after a blocked punt by Kassim Osgood. They settled for field goals both times, and the Seahawks' spirits were clearly high despite being down by six points and seeing their offense clobbered by the 49ers' blistering attack.
Sparked by their goal-line stands, the birds rallied and scored touchdowns on their next two drives.
The 49ers made four trips to the red zone and settled for field goals three times (though it must be noted that the offense purposely took a conservative approach on its final possession to run down the clock).
Who cares? The 49ers dominated. They won. They pwned it.
But what if we flipped the result?
Against the Panthers, the 49ers squandered several red-zone opportunities, and those lost points ended up costing them the game.
They were in a similar position against the Seahawks, trailing by a point and needing a clutch offensive drive to win the game. The difference is there were four minutes left on the clock, not one, and Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman remembered that they had Frank Gore in the backfield.
One 51-yard run by the best running back in 49ers history was the only thing standing between a series sweep and the Seahawks celebrating a division title at Candlestick Park.
Gore made a similar run in the Super Bowl, scampering 29 yards down the field before being tackled seven yards short of the end zone. What happened next caused most fans to switch off their DVRs. Four plays. Two yards. No trophy.
Frustrating. Very frustrating. Especially when you consider how many different ways the 49ers offense can put the ball in the back of the end zone. An option play by Kaepernick. A classic smash up the middle with Gore. A little lob to Vernon Davis. A quick slant to Michael Crabtree or Anquan Boldin.
Perhaps it's better to just have one thing to focus on like Minnesota with Adrian Peterson or Denver with Peyton Manning. Or maybe, just maybe, Colin Kaepernick needs to do a better job of seeing everybody on the field.
All 16 of his touchdown passes have been to all of two receivers, something that might change now that Michael Crabtree is slowly easing into the flow of the passing game. But the 49ers could throw out six All-Pro receivers, and it wouldn't matter if Kaepernick can only see one.
The image of three incomplete passes to Michael Crabtree in the end zone is something that still hangs fresh for a lot of 49er fans.
Put simply, Kaepernick needs to improve two critical elements of his game—field vision and release—for the 49ers to be able to finish their drives. The offensive line also has to do a better job of giving him time in the slot and picking up the blitz.
Harbaugh knows the problems with the offense extend well beyond the quarterback position, via profootballtalk:
"The way we look at it is as a unit. The unit, offensively, we didn't play well enough to win the game. Now, across the board, we think about accountability for that we've got fingerprints on it. I'm not going to go through, dissect, position by position, raking anybody over the coals. I don't think that's best for us"
One of the most glaring problems is Harbaugh and Roman trying to outsmart everyone else. The sight of Kaepernick and the offense running through multiple shifts and audibles with the play clock running down has been difficult to watch this season.
Sometimes the best option is the one everyone expects.
It's true that defenses are the stingiest when their backs are up against the wall, but the 49ers offense has to find a way to keep Phil Dawson off the field, even though it isn't a moral imperative like it was last season.
Dawson has been one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL for the last decade, and for the first time he's getting an opportunity to make his kicks count for something. The Browns only made the playoffs once during his 14-year tenure.
Via the San Jose Mercury News:
This is fun. I've always been appreciative to play in the NFL. I'm very grateful for my years in Cleveland. But to have a chance to be in the hunt and have a say about the playoffs and just to experience it all, it's been worth the wait.
Maybe he'll even get to kick a game-winning field goal in January. That would be as awesome as any touchdown.