Loath to admit as so many fans likely are, reliable place-kicking has been a necessity for the 49ers over the past few seasons.
David Akers earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors with a league-record 44 made field goals in 2011. He converted all four attempts in the playoffs that year and was a legitimate team MVP for the 49ers.
Akers regrettably crashed and burned the following campaign. He missed more field goals than any other kicker (13). His conversion rate was a dismal 69 percent. But in true throwback fashion, Akers rebounded miraculously in the postseason. He misfired on just one attempt and, most significantly, connected on all three tries in Super Bowl XLVII.
Dawson then signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2013. The esteemed veteran quickly established his high-accuracy reputation after some initial stumbles.
He made a franchise-record 27 consecutive field goals from Weeks 5 to 17. Even more crucial during that span were his two game-winners.
Dawson first helped San Francisco reassert itself over the archrival Seattle Seahawks on December 8. His 22-yarder ensured a season-series tie and kept the 49ers in the divisional hunt.
Three weeks later, Dawson sealed the team’s No. 5 playoff berth versus the Arizona Cardinals.
He initially put the 49ers ahead with a 56-yard bomb at the 1:45 mark, followed by an official winning kick as time expired.
The conversion sent yet another NFC West foe packing.
The 15-year veteran cemented his vital status with a Wild Card Game-clinching 33-yard boot on the arctic tundra of Lambeau Field. He went 7-of-7 all told in the playoffs for good measure.
We bring up this background information as a means of establishing the importance of kicking for San Francisco.
The 49ers and red-zone scoring have not been friends the last three years.
Team Rankings show that they fell to No. 23 in 2011 with just over one touchdown per game (1.3) inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. They improved during the subsequent two seasons but still rated 10th with only 1.9 scores per contest.
Powerful rushing attacks that ranked eighth, fourth and third behind Frank Gore since 2011 have not sufficed. Neither has Michael Crabtree’s 13 touchdowns between 2011 and 2012, Colin Kaepernick’s dual-threat ability over the past two campaigns or tight end Vernon Davis' 13 scores this year.
As productive as that foursome has been in recent years, it simply hasn’t been enough.
The otherwise Super Bowl-contending 49ers are anything but when it comes to consistently realizing touchdown paydirt in the red zone.
That is why precision between the uprights is so critical to this team’s success.
San Francisco desperately needed Dawson’s 18-of-19 hits from close within enemy territory (20- to 39-yard field goals originate from the three- to 22-yard line). The same goes for his 32 total conversions and team-leading 8.8 points scored per game.
Harbaugh’s offensively inconsistent squad will require similar numbers yet again in 2014.
Now, whether Dawson can even return next season is a legitimate concern.
Said players in need of contracts most notably include 1,000-yard wideout Anquan Boldin, secondary leader Donte Whitner and starting cornerback Tarell Brown.
And of course Phil Dawson—the invaluable kicker who made $2.35 million on a bargain one-year deal.
Could the 49ers bring in Adam Vinatieri and his second-leading 35 field goals on a cheaper salary?
Other marquee free agents Nick Folk, Dan Carpenter and Steven Hauschka are all due substantial raises as well. Each sub-30-year-old made at least 91.7 percent of his kicks and ranked in the top five overall.
Would Baalke then scour the draft for an unproven NCAA commodity?
No way—not for a team that was just one play removed from an appearance in Super Bowl XLVIII. And one that will remain atop the NFC hierarchy in 2014.
So long story short, the 49ers must pray to the football deities that they can broker a cap-friendly, mutually beneficial deal with Dawson.
Hyperbolic statements or not, the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy is on the line.
Let’s hope Dawson’s gut feeling comes to fruition.
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