|Great or not, David Akers has a slim chance to get into the Pro Football Hall. (Getty Images)|
Shortly after San Francisco's David Akers tied an NFL record by launching a 63-yard missile Sunday, coach Jim Harbaugh called him "the greatest kicker in the history of the game." I don't know about that, but I do know this: No matter how great David Akers is, he probably doesn't get a sniff at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That's not based on presumption; it's based on fact.
There's exactly one specialist in Canton, and he was there Sunday to witness Akers' record-tying field goal and to meet the 49ers' kicker after halftime. I'm talking about Jan Stenerud, the former Green Bay and Kansas City kicker who was inducted into the Hall 21 years ago.
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That was a start, but it was also an end. Because after Stenerud, there's been nothing, and that includes the game's greatest punter, Ray Guy.
Call it an oversight, but I call it a mistake. And so does David Akers.
"I think there definitely needs to be punters and kickers in the Hall," he said. "I mean, you're telling me Ray Guy isn't in the Hall of Fame? Look, you can say what you want about the position, but we didn't create it. The position is part of football. So, if you're saying they're the best guys who ever played that position, then they definitely should be in the Hall of Fame."
For that to occur, though, there must be a change in attitude toward special teams, and there will be. In fact, there should be after what happened in last year's conference championship games. And what happened is that special teams basically determined who went to the Super Bowl -- with Kyle Williams' muffed punt returns sabotaging San Francisco, and Billy Cundiff's botched field goal shutting down Baltimore.
Special teams were back at it again last weekend, with Minnesota's Blair Walsh nailing a 55-yard last-second field goal to send the Vikings-Jacksonville game into overtime, a contest Minnesota would win ... on, yes, another Walsh field goal. Then, of course, there was Akers' record-tying kick at the end of the first half in Green Bay.
"Something that goes unsaid," said Akers, "is how great the O-line has to block because (opponents) can't get any penetration at all. They call it the toughest two seconds in football, and they're very much underappreciated by a lot of people. But not me."
And for good reason.
I watched the Oakland Raiders screw up snaps to punter Shane Lechler on Monday night, mistakes that cost them a ballgame. Then I listen to people tell me punters and kickers don't matter and wonder: What part of this don't they understand?
Don't bother to ask quarterback Peyton Manning or former coach Tony Dungy. They lost a playoff game to San Diego when Chargers punter Mike Scifres five times pinned them inside the 11 and twice had them start inside the 4. Scifres kicked six times, with Indianapolis' best field position its own 19-yard line and its worst the 1.
"That," said New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford, "was the greatest game a punter has ever played. It was insane."
No, what's insane is that these guys aren't recognized more for what they do -- which is to help determine the outcome of games. Akers is right: They didn't create the positions; they serve them ... and some better than others. The NFL finally awakened to their value, with six clubs this year making kickers or punters franchise players, and New Orleans stepping up later to sign punter/kicker Thomas Morstead to a six-year, $21.9 million deal.
"Obviously," said Weatherford, "if GMs are thinking so highly of kickers and punters to pay them more than a lot of the running backs, you take it for what it's worth. Kickers and punters right now are getting to where they can be game changers."
The numbers prove it. Nearly 67 percent of all games last season were within one score in the fourth quarter, and 43 percent were within three points. Kickers can win games; punters can determine field positions that win games. And returners? Look at what Devin Hester and Patrick Peterson do for their ballclubs, and you have your answer.
"Yeah, it seems like special teams are more appreciated," said New York Jets special teams guru Mike Westhoff, "but in terms of the franchise thing, that's just because of the financial setup. It's really easier to franchise a kicker and punter than it used to be, so I think that's really smoke and mirrors. The system is top-end loaded, more than it's ever been, and it makes it more difficult for a GM to be able to afford everybody."
But it's not GMs I'm concerned with. It's a public perception that special-teams stars somehow don't deserve the accolades of others who play more, sweat more and put themselves more at risk. When people want a good laugh, they rewind the video of Garo Yepremian trying to throw the ball after an aborted field-goal attempt in Super Bowl VII. But when clubs today need a lift, they call on someone like Akers to make a record-tying kick.
"It's not that big a deal for me," Akers said. "I'd rather just fly under the radar."
Don't worry. He'll get his wish after he retires. Other than, possibly, Adam Vinatieri I can't think of another punter or kicker on the Hall of Fame short list. That doesn't mean Vinatieri makes it; it just means he'll get serious consideration.
Akers mentioned Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson as two who should be slam dunks, but unless your name is Montana, Unitas or Rice, there are no slam dunks at Canton. More than that, I'd be willing to bet a week's salary that one or neither gets in.
"They should," said Akers. "The game is getting so specialized now, that returners and all those guys, they should be in there as well."
Good luck. There's a better chance of David Akers hitting a 73-yard field goal this weekend.