San Francisco 49ers: Should You Worry over Phil Dawson's Missed Field Goals?

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San Francisco 49ers: Should You Worry over Phil Dawson's Missed Field Goals?
David Seelig/Associated Press

Phil Dawson missed two field goals!  Everyone panic!

In all seriousness, the fact that Dawson’s first two field-goal attempts ever at Levi’s Stadium were no good, and missed by such substantial distances, caused some alarm among San Francisco 49er fans.  Dawson was great last season, making 32 of 36 field goals and providing a reliable leg after the fiasco that was David Akers in 2012.  The shanked field goals, however, prompted much gnashing of teeth.

Dawson had a press conference on Tuesday to discuss the issue, and didn’t exactly put minds to rest:

I still have a couple of more weeks. Honestly, I don’t know that I’m going to have that place figured out any time soon. The best you can do is show up on those game days and figure out a way to get them through.

Dawson compared Levi’s Stadium to his initial problems kicking in the swirling winds of Candlestick Park, but then he had Andy Lee’s years of experience to help guide him.  Levi’s Stadium is entirely new, and Dawson has indicated that so far, it’s been a tough nut to crack:

I watched the film of every punt, every kickoff, and there were 15-yard differences in distances on kickoffs. If one went a little bit here, it went deep. If one went here, it went short. Some curved to the left. Some curved to the right. And all of the flags are doing the same thing. So go figure. How do you make sense of that? I’m going to have to put on my investigative hat, see if I can’t figure out some clues and have a better plan going into the regular season.

Dawson’s not alone in struggling with new stadiums.

While football isn’t like baseball, in that every field has the same dimensions, the stadiums themselves do not.  Levi’s Stadium is open at both the north and south ends, but not in the dead center—the gaps are in the corners.  When the wind comes in from the north, as it often does in Santa Clara, this is going to create very different wind patterns from the swirling, twisting winds that came from Candlestick’s enclosed bowl design.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Dawson and Lee could work through the kicking game together last year.

Last season, Dawson had Lee to help him make instant corrections, but there’s no guru for Levi’s yet.  All we have to go on is a single preseason game’s worth of data, which isn’t nearly enough to help Dawson figure out how the winds will alter his field-goal attempts.  That’s a piece of home-field advantage which will not exist until the 49ers have enough experience in the stadium to have better knowledge of the air currents than their opponents.

There’s not a lot of statistical data on the effects of first-year stadiums on the kicking game, thanks to small sample sizes.  I went back and looked at all 33 cases since 1960 where a team moved into a new, outdoor stadium and had the same kicker in the first two years there. 

While this should be taken with a grain of salt, thanks to each kicker only getting around 15 field-goal attempts a year at home, the kickers improved their field-goal percentage by 5.2 percent in their second seasons:

Recent Kickers' Field-Goal Percentage in New Stadiums
Team Stadium Kicker Year Year 1 Year 2 Change
Jets MetLife Stadium Nick Folk 2010 85.0% 80.0% -5.0%
Giants MetLife Stadium Lawrence Tynes 2010 76.9% 76.9% 0%
Cardinals UoP Stadium Neil Rackers 2006 72.2% 81.3% 9.1%
Eagles Lincoln Financial David Akers 2003 76.9% 87.5% 10.6%
Patriots Gillette Stadium Adam Vinatieri 2002 93.8% 70.0% -23.8%
Texans Reliant Stadium Kris Brown 2002 61.5% 75.0% 13.5%
Broncos Sports Authority Jason Elam 2001 94.1% 87.5% -6.6%
Bengals Paul Brown Neil Rackers 2000 54.5% 61.6% 6.6%
Titans LP Field Al Del Greco 1999 90.0% 69.2% -20.8%
NFL All Stadiums N/A 1960+ 63.8% 69.2% 5.2%

Pro Football Reference

Bryan Knowles/Pro Football Reference

While it does feel like there is a general trend for kickers to do better in their second seasons in a brand-new stadium, it could also just be noise. 

There’s also a lot of individual variance; George Blair went from 50 percent to 100 percent when the Chargers moved into Balboa Stadium in 1961, while Gerry Perry fell from 66.7 percent to 37.5 percent in the Cardinals’ first two years in the original Busch Stadium in 1960.  There’s some evidence that there is little correlation between field-goal percentage from year to year, as Football Outsiders tried to prove a few years ago.

Still, 23 of the 33 kickers improved in year two, which seems like at least enough for an anecdotal opinion that kicking in a brand-new stadium is hard.  It will probably take at least a half-season for Dawson and Lee to fully wrap their heads around the new wrinkles that the stadium brings with it.

USA TODAY Sports

Then again, this could all be freaking out over nothing. 

In pregame warm-ups, Dawson reported that he only missed one field-goal attempt out of 50 tries.  He made a 58-yard field goal in each direction, and it was only his fifth time kicking in the stadium, including practices.  Knowing that Dawson was 49 for 53, rather than zero for two, would ease a lot of people’s minds—though a kick in practice is much, much different than a kick in a game situation.

There’s plenty of time—and another preseason game—for Dawson to get his head on straight about the stadium.  It would be less of an issue if the offense could punch the ball in the end zone from time to time, but Dawson’s learning curve for kicking in the stadium will lessen as the season goes on. 

By the end of the year, Dawson will have a significant advantage over other kickers coming in.  He’ll have had a full year in the stadium, while others will be getting their first looks at the unique conditions at Levi’s Stadium.

Let’s just hope the learning curve doesn’t involve any crucial misses when the games start to count.

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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