SANTA CLARA -- The strange saga of David Akers' kicking foot continues. A year ago, it was made of 49er gold. In this season's opener at Green Bay, it was made of history.
But for the last several weeks, the foot has been made of ... well, remember the mystery meat from your high school cafeteria? That's what appears to have infested Akers' lower left leg.
Akers was so reliable last season that he spoiled 49er fans rotten. He set a franchise record with 44 field goals. His ability to convert long-distance attempts in particular -- he connected on 7 of 9 from 50 yards and out -- made him a singular and unique weapon. At Green Bay back in September, the weapon appeared invincible when Akers tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal.
Not sure what's happened to that guy since. The man wearing Akers' uniform lately has clearly lost his mojo. He has missed four of his last 11 field goal attempts, including a 39-yard try last Sunday at New England. He has made just 71.4 percent of his attempts this season compared with 84.6 percent in 2011.
All together now: gulp. As the 49ers approach another crucial matchup Sunday in Seattle, to be followed by the playoffs' final-jeopardy atmosphere, the last thing a team needs is a kicker who can't dependably nail a clincher in a tight game. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has addressed the Akers situation frequently. And this week, when the topic arose at a media session, Harbaugh chose not to, ahem,
"These specialists, sometimes they only get four or five opportunities a game," Harbaugh said. "You've got to make the play. We've got to see him do it. We've got to see him make those plays."
Still, when pressed on whether a placekicking change was being contemplated, Harbaugh said: "No, not at this time."
It hardly sounded like a ringing endorsement for Akers. After all, Harbaugh was praising quarterback Alex Smith to the hilt right up until the time he was benched for Colin Kaepernick. So what does such nonpraise to the nonhilt foreshadow for Akers?
He was not made available to talk about it Thursday. Akers couldn't be located in the 49er facility during the lunchtime open-locker-room portion of the afternoon -- a team employee speculated he might have left the building to run an errand -- and a request for a post-practice interview did not yield one.
That is uncharacteristic of Akers, who is as cooperative with the media as anyone on the team and is usually a stand-up guy. The team has acknowledged that Akers is dealing with some sort of vague injury. A pelvis issue is the best guess. But it's only a guess. The 49ers brought in a couple of kickers for tryouts a few weeks ago but didn't sign any.
Akers has not missed practice time. At age 38, he looks to be in good overall shape. He was out there again Thursday in his sweatpants, working with the special teams. But the dip in his performance might be affecting his mentality in some fashion. Earlier this week, some idiot tweeted a death wish to Akers (the exact wording from the genius also included a gay slur and the phrase "IF YOU MISS ONE MORE FIELD GOAL YOU ABOUT TO GET YOUR ENTIRE LIFE ENDED").
The threat didn't seem serious. The strangest thing, however, was Akers' response. Upon receiving the vile comment, Akers retweeted it to all his followers. Why would any person retweet such an awful thing? Not sure, until Akers deigns to explain. But shortly thereafter, he appeared to delete his entire Twitter account. And the person attached to the Twitter handle for the vile comment claimed he had been hacked. Good times.
Two of Akers' missed field goal attempts have cost the 49ers potential victories. The first happened in the overtime tie against the Rams on Nov. 11, when he pushed a 41-yarder wide left. The other occurred three weeks later in a loss at St. Louis, when Akers again lined up in overtime to try a potential game-winner one from 51-yards away -- hardly an improbable feat inside a dome -- and saw it drift wide right.
Just as troubling have been the kicks Akers misses in the run of play that would normally give the offense a boost at key moments but instead kill momentum. That happened in losses to Minnesota and the New York Giants. Akers' kickoffs have been seemingly unaffected by his injury. He is booming 81.5 percent of them into the end zone, roughly the league average, and has the 10th most touchbacks in the NFL. However, the run-through nature of kickoffs puts less strain on certain muscles, compared with the short windup and explosive mechanics of placement attempts.
Fortunately for the 49ers, their improved offense has overridden Akers' other bad days. But you do wonder if it's made a difference in the play calling. A year ago, inside the 35-yard line, the 49ers could take more downfield shots on third down, knowing Akers' foot all but guaranteed three points on fourth down. Now, unless the ball's inside the 20, it probably makes more sense to go for just enough yards on third-and-short. It might make even more sense to go for it on fourth down.
Thursday, offensive coordinator Greg Roman was asked about all that. His immediate response was to strongly defend Akers.
"We've got total confidence in David," Roman said.
But then, in an attempt to address the original question, he added these words: "We're always going to make decisions, team decisions on offense on whatever's best for the team, however the big picture fits together. That's what we're going to try to do to win the football game."
So in other words: Yes, it is quite possible that the play-calling strategy has been Aker-ized. Only one way to change that. His mystery-meat foot has got to get back on the gold standard.