lengthy field goals are no miracles

Sunday , September 16, 2012 - 12:56 AM

Barry Wilner

David Akers called his 63-yard field goal at Green Bay "a miracle."

Hardly.

Kickers are trying and making longer field goals every year, and Akers’ record-tying kick easily could be exceeded this season — provided the circumstances are right.

"I’m guessing probably everybody’s always had the ability to do it," said the Falcons’ Matt Bryant, who has a 62-yarder. "That would be my thinking. It’s just actually getting a chance to do it."

Akers got the opportunity at the end of the half at Lambeau Field. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh had seen Akers hit from 60 yards in warm-ups — some kickers don’t even bother trying from that distance before games — and felt good about going for it.

At 37, Akers’ leg is getting stronger. He was the All-Pro kicker last season in his first year with the 49ers, making 44 of 52 kicks, including 7 of 9 from 50 yards and beyond. He is dependable and relatively immune to pressure after spending a dozen seasons in Philadelphia.

But he didn’t think the kick had a chance.

‘’There’s no way I hit it good enough," Akers thought.



"It wasn’t like there was like some big wind gust or anything, it just kept kind of going," he added. "I went a little slower and tried to hit the ball a little higher up to try to drive it a little bit — kind of hit my 3-iron and see what happens. It tracked real nice."

Then it hit the goalpost and bounced over, tying Akers with Jason Elam, Sebastian Janikowski and Tom Dempsey for the record. Dempsey, a straight-on kicker with a clubbed right foot, made the first 63-yarder to beat Detroit in 1970. Elam was next from that distance — 28 years later.

Don’t expect such a big gap before someone exceeds the mark.

The number of attempts from 60 yards or longer per year increased from two in 2007 to seven last season. From 55 and longer, still a prodigious distance, there were 16 tries in ‘07 and 28 last year. There already were two on opening weekend, with Minnesota rookie Blair Walsh hitting a 55-yarder to tie the game at the end of regulation.

The success rate from 55-plus is such that coaches don’t see anything miraculous about trying one, even with a rookie.

"I was thinking game-tying field goal the whole way," Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said. "And to be honest with you, anything in that situation inside of 65, you’ve got to go for it to tie the game to send it to overtime."

They went, Walsh came through, then he kicked a more-normal 38-yarder to win it.

A major reason teams are willing to gamble from long range is that placekickers no longer are afterthoughts on rosters. Indeed, they are athletes, good athletes with backgrounds playing other positions or other sports.

Fred Pinciaro, a kicking coach who works with Connor Barth, Neil Rackers, Josh Brown and Shayne Graham, plus college and high school kickers, was training several of them in St. Louis. Some youngsters at the high school were playing soccer and "my guys jumped in and played a bit and played well. Josh Brown was a phenomenal gymnast and can play really good soccer."

Pinciaro sees kickers who regularly lift weights and work with conditioning coaches — beginning at the youth level. One of his high school students practices kicks from 50 yards out, in part because there’s a lake behind the field and they don’t want to get too close and lose the ball. Still, the kid is nailing them from that far away.

Most NFL kickers have been college standouts and weren’t shaken by pressure kicks in front of huge crowds or on national TV. They also are getting in-depth coaching in college, which hones their fundamentals, the key to success at any level.

"When I work with my pro kickers, we practice at 45 and 50 yards, so when they make them at 45 and 50 it is just a good natural strike," Pinciaro said. "Hit the ball well and do all the technical things they need to do well."

Bryant finds some of these long-range field goals surprising because of the K-ball NFL kickers must use. Those balls have been used since 1999 when, NFL executive George Young wanted to "level the playing field" by not allowing each team to doctor footballs.

There are 6 K-balls prepared for each game. The officiating crew is responsible for transporting and testing them before the game, and there’s a K-ball specialist on the sideline crew controlling them during the game.

Bryant doesn’t exactly like them, even as his peers are blasting them through the uprights from distance.

"The only thing it helps is not being able to kick those 60- or 65-yarders," Bryant said. "The K-ball stays in a package, wrapped in a wrapper, in some guy’s hotel room or house and then it’s opened up 30 minutes before, and the equipment guys are allowed to rub them down to get that waxy film off."

One of the oddities about Akers’ kick was the lack of help from Mother Nature.

"With help from wind and the elements," Pinciaro said, "they can (regularly) crank them through at 63 yards."

And, perhaps very soon, from beyond.

"I think it’s a little less harder now," Priefer said of having Walsh belt kicks from the farthest reaches of the field. "Because he’s shown that he can handle that situation."

Obviously, so has Akers, and he can’t wait for another shot.

"It was neat to be part of," Akers said. "The one thing, you don’t get an opportunity like that. It’s kind of like a golfer hitting a hole-in-one or something like that. To experience that with the team in the first game and to get such an awesome road win with our team was really something special.

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