SANTA CLARA -- A year ago as the 49ers drove toward the playoffs, every field-goal attempt gave fans' stomachs reason to churn.
Not this year. Where David Akers struggled, making only 29 of 42 attempts a year ago, Phil Dawson is flourishing. Dawson has made a franchise-record 24 consecutive field goals -- the second-longest run of his career.
"Guys feel like once we get to a certain point of the field, we've got at least three points," special-teams coordinator Brad Seely said. "I think that's big in everybody's mindset, that this guy's going to come through when we need him."
Dawson's steadiness comes from approaching every kick as though his job is on the line. It is a mentality that was drummed into his head as an undrafted NFL rookie looking for a job the hard way.
Dawson, an All-American at Texas, threw himself a draft-day party in 1998. But the phone never rang. So he signed a free-agent deal with the Raiders and ended up cut. He spent his first season on the New England Patriots' practice squad.
"My first couple of years were absolutely miserable," Dawson, 38, said. "It was no sweat off anybody's back if I didn't work out."
Dawson thought his big moment had arrived after he survived the Cleveland Browns' training camp in 1999. On the final cut day, coach Chris Palmer approached to deliver what Dawson expected to be the triumphant news.
"He goes, 'Well, we're going to start out with you,' " Dawson recalled. "Not exactly how I envisioned that moment going. It was awfully tough to receive it that way. And in some ways, the mentality that I had to take from that moment moving forward is still with me."
It served him well for 14 seasons in Cleveland, where Dawson made 84.0 percent of his field-goal attempts -- among the league's best. Dawson made his first Pro Bowl last year and is having another Pro Bowl-caliber season after signing with the 49ers as a free agent.
"People are saying he's having the best year of his career, but he's been doing this since he's been in the league," said 49ers backup quarterback Colt McCoy, who was in Cleveland the past three years with Dawson and is a fellow University of Texas product.
Dawson also draws on the toughness that comes from considering himself a football player first. Dawson, who played fullback, linebacker and even offensive tackle in high school, said he prepares as if he still were a linebacker.
Coach Jim Harbaugh sees that mentality.
"Just a real guy's guy," Harbaugh said. "Real football player in every sense of the word, which doesn't always get affixed to kickers and punters."
But Dawson (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) isn't perceived as a physical threat even in the special-teams world. He learned early that to succeed in bad-weather Cleveland he would have to focus more on accuracy than power. Consider him a really good singles hitter.
"If I were a baseball player, I'm just trying to make contact at the plate as opposed to putting it in the cheap seats," he said. "The thing I've found is when you have a very simple, efficient, repeatable-type technique, the long ball comes, but it also allows you to get a lot of hits."
Dawson cringes when he hears the term chip-shot field goal, because "there's no such thing." His career long is 56 yards, and he has made nearly 70 percent of his attempts from 50-plus in his career. But he is more concerned with making every attempt than crushing long ones.
"The first question you ever get asked is, 'How far can you kick it?' " Dawson said. "Everyone thinks that's the measuring stick for how good you are. That's why it was so tough to try to put that on the side, because I knew as nice as it is to make long ones, I need to make the little 30-yarder every time."
And every time is what has gotten Dawson to this point. He knows one miss at the wrong time could be a career breaker.
"It's forced me to bring an intensity and focus to literally every kick and every game," he said.
Follow Jimmy Durkin on Twitter at twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.
BACK ON TARGET
The 49ers have much more stability in the kicking game this season with Phil Dawson. Here's a look at the team's field-goal kicking the past three seasons with David Akers and Dawson:
Year Kicker FGM FGA PCT
2011 Akers 44 52 84.6
2012 Akers 29 42 69.0
2013 Dawson 27 30 90.0
Atlanta (4-10) at 49ers (10-4),
5:40 p.m. ESPN, KPIX
49ers center Jonathan Goodwin is
pondering retirement. PAGE 2
49ers kicker Phil Dawson has made a team-record 24 consecutive field goals.