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PRO FOOTBALL

For NFL kickers, there's no such thing as job security

Changes in kickoff rules to promote touchbacks mean there won't be the same market for specialists to handle those jobs, and one bad week can be the end of a kicker's time with a team.

August 22, 2011|By Sam Farmer
  • Former UCLA kicker Justin Medlock, left, kicks a field goal while playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League during a preseason game on June 11. Medlock has had a difficult time cracking the NFL ranks.
Former UCLA kicker Justin Medlock, left, kicks a field goal while playing… (Mike Cassese / Reuters )

Reporting from Santa Clara, Calif. — David Akers, a five-time Pro Bowl kicker who recently joined the San Francisco 49ers, has been a waiter throughout his adult life.

First, he waited tables to make ends meet when football wasn't paying the bills. Then, he waited for his chance, hitting the waiver wires three times before hooking on with Philadelphia in 1999, where he played until this season. Finally came the interminable wait every NFL kicker encounters — the expectant wait for someone to step in and take your job.

"Let's be realistic," Akers, 36, said after a recent practice. "People say, 'Oh, you've got job security.' But even the best job in the NFL, it's a one-year deal for everybody."

There are only 32 of those jobs, and now that the league has moved the kickoff up five yards to promote touchbacks — a player-safety decision — there won't be the same market for specialists to handle those duties. Akers isn't the only familiar kicking name in a new place. Olindo Mare has gone from Seattle to Carolina, and longtime Pittsburgh fixture Jeff Reed has bounced from the Steelers to the 49ers to the Seahawks.

The way it often happens with high-profile linebackers, receivers or other positions, the player loses a step and gradually fades out of the scene. For a kicker, though, one bad week and he can be packing his bags.

"We don't need to know a playbook, so patience is thin," former NFL kicker Michael Husted said. "If a guy misses a couple of kicks, teams don't hesitate to make a change."

Justin Medlock knows that all too well. The former UCLA kicker was a fifth-round pick of Kansas City in 2007, had a so-so rookie training camp and was released after missing one of two field-goal attempts in Week 1. That was the first stop in an NFL/Canadian Football League odyssey with stops with the St. Louis Rams, Toronto Argonauts (twice), Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, Omaha Nighthawks (of the United Football League), Edmonton Eskimos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

"I definitely think I can kick in the NFL," said Medlock, who has built a more secure but lower-profile kicking career north of the border. "But that's a league where they want you to perform now, and not in two months. They don't have time to, say, work in a new holder trying to get adapted to a lefty. If they think you're a good kicker and your holder can't hold, they'll cut you."

In order to consistently put a ball between the uprights, Medlock said, you have to be in the right place between the ears. He added that most kickers have the physical ability to make all sorts of kicks and therefore success in the pros is "99% mental and 1% mental" — meaning if you think you're going to miss, you already have.

Like Akers, Medlock is a left-footed kicker and says those are becoming rarer around the NFL in part because it's increasingly difficult to find good holders for them. With virtually every team, it's the punter who does the holding, as opposed to years ago, when it was just as often the backup quarterback.

Holding for a kicker is difficult enough, let alone having to flop from the right to left side depending on the player's kicking foot, and spinning the ball in different directions to make sure the laces are facing out. A proper snap-hold-kick operation takes fewer than two seconds and requires surgical precision. So when punters switch teams, as they do every year, the ripple effect can be dramatic.

"People don't realize that from the time of the snap to the time the ball is shot off the foot, it's about 1.28 seconds," Akers said. "I'm moving before the holder catches the ball. I'm in my first full step by the time the ball hits the ground, so then I have one jump into the ball."

It's the equivalent, he said, of trying to drive a golf ball that's teed up only when you're at the top of your backswing. (Because 49ers punter Andy Lee is recovering from a hip-pointer injury, Akers has to adjust to a new holder this week.)

Akers did that so well for the Eagles, he stuck around for 12 seasons. He missed two field-goal attempts in Philadelphia's five-point playoff loss to Green Bay in January, and later he and the team couldn't come to terms on a new contract. When the Eagles drafted Nebraska's Alex Henery — the most accurate kicker in NCAA history — it spelled curtains for Akers.

As Akers can attest, kickers might have a laser-beam focus straight ahead on Sunday afternoon, but most are glancing over their shoulders the rest of the week. After all, there are a lot of non-football players who think they too could make millions of dollars booting a ball through the uprights.

"You get the guy who just watched a kicker miss an extra point or whatever," Akers said. "He goes to take out the trash, sees the half-inflated volleyball, has the steel-toed boots that are half-open, toes it over the shed and says, 'See? I could have made it.'

"If you do something well, it looks easy."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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