In the annals of the Philadelphia Eagles, never has a place kicker been so beloved as David Akers. He was certainly the best in franchise history, but for a specialist, the love fans have for Akers is almost unnatural. I mean, who buys the kicker's jersey?
Needless to say, it sparked a bit of an uproar when Andy Reid, pressed about the field goals Akers missed in a 21-16 playoff loss against the Packers in 2010, admitted, "We can all count. Those points would have helped." Fans worked themselves into a fervor when the front office drafted Alex Henery in the fourth round the following April, and removed the transition tag from Akers as soon as the lockout ended, making the Eagle of 12 years an unrestricted free agent.
All Akers went on to do with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 was lead the NFL in points, so that obviously worked out well, right?
It certainly feeds the perception that management made a foolish decision when they refused to extend Akers. While Akers made headlines with a historic season that garnered first-team All-Pro honors, Henery did seemingly little of note, and at times it appeared he was handled with kid gloves. For that matter, when the Birds and Niners went head-to-head in Week 4, Henery missed two chip-shot field goals that wound up costing his side the game.
Not a good way to make people forget about the other guy, even when the other guy misses a couple of kicks himself that day.
Then again, not much of a way to declare a winner, either. That and Akers' great year are what's fresh in everybody's minds, but it's such a shallow depiction of events.
For starters, the fact that Akers led the league in points isn't proof alone that it was a mistake for the Eagles to move on. While a kicker has to be fairly sure-footed to be on top, he also needs to have plenty of attempts, and the 49ers gave him more chances than anybody -- in fact, it was a record number. With 52 tries, Akers had 11 more than the next most-utilized place kicker, Washington's Graham Gano, and broke the all-time total by three.
Granted Akers converted on his tries, just not exactly at an extraordinary rate. His 84.6 field goal percentage ranked 17th in the NFL, which is still fine, but it tells us he didn't exactly make the most of all his opportunities. Sure, he made the most of his tries from inside of 40 yards, leading the league with 32, and knocking all but one of those down.
40 and beyond was another story. Only a handful of kickers were worse on field goals between 40-49 yards, where Akers ranked 30th with only 54% through the uprights. And while he was amazingly 7-for-9 from 50+, that was highly unusual, as he was below 50% for his entire tenure with the Birds.
None of which is meant to defame Akers, who is still a great kicker that anybody would love to have, and you can't deny his impact on San Francisco's successful run in 2011. However, as is often the case, there are more to the numbers than meets the eye.
That goes for more than statistics. The Eagles did make an effort to retain Akers, or at least lended that appearance when they tagged him at the conclusion of 2010, but he made it perfectly clear he wasn't happy with a one-year deal that would have paid him around $3 million. The numbers the front office were likely looking at though were Akers' age (then 36) and the years they were willing to give.
Rather than counting on negotiations with an aging kicker who was coming off an awful post-season performance (even with the understanding he was experiencing some hard times off the field), the Eagles saw an opportunity to snag the top kicker coming out of college, and used one of their 11 selections that year to choose Henery out of Nebraska.
While the San Fran game looms large, otherwise it hasn't worked out poorly for the Birds at all. Henery missed just one more kick in 27 tries all year, a 63-yard attempt in Week 2 against the Falcons. That works out to a higher percentage (88.9) than Akers by the way -- in addition to setting the rookie record for that mark -- plus he was better from 40 and beyond, too (83.3 to 65).
Of course, Henery isn't nearly as battle tested, and he'll have to show a lot more and in clutch situations before anybody puts supreme confidence in his abilities. That said, given the circumstances you can't blame the Eagles for trying to get younger at a position where they were dealing with an unhappy veteran. Somewhere down the road, Akers is going to decline. When that happens, if everything has worked according to plan, the Birds will be set.