Call him the Professor of Kickology. David Akers, 11 years into his Eagles career, continues to refine and re-position and re-invent himself as a placekicker. The all-time franchise leader in field goals (236), points (1,074) and point-after touchdowns (366), Akers on this day is explaining a subtle, yet significant, change he made in the months past to become a more successful kickoff artist.
"Instead of going for hang time, I wanted to drive the ball more and work it that way. The ball has different sections to it. Normally on a field goal, you cut the ball in half and then cut it again and that's your sweet spot. For me, I'm actually raising the ball more towards the middle of the ball so I can get a slow rotation. When I hit it, I actually hit more of the left panel of the ball," said Akers. "When the ball is flying through the air, instead of going end over end, it kind of looks like an X. It's off rotation a little bit, but for me, it carries the ball deeper."
Akers, who has seven touchbacks in four games, estimates his adjustment has added four or five yards to his kickoffs. It is yet another way to become a better kicker. Akers has the world chasing him. He lives kick to kick. Rising to the top of the Eagles kicker numbers mean not much to Akers at this point in his life, because he knows he is only as good as his last kick, and that his next kick will be judged just as harshly as any of the 236 field goals he has made in an amazing Eagles career.
Such is the life of the NFL kicker. You see it almost every day: Teams bring in kickers to take a look. There are 32 jobs at this level, and Akers has one of them. He has shown, year after year, that he is one of the best in the league. And still, there is so little job security.
Akers still looks back at the ones that he missed. The field goals here and there. The kickoff that went out of bounds in the NFC Championship Game, the "first time in my life that I have kicked the ball out of bounds to my left. Two or three more degrees and that would have been a touchback. But ..."
Through four games this season, Akers has made 6 of 7 field goals -- his only miss was a blocked attempt from 52 yards -- and he has nailed kicks from 44 and 49 yards. The stroke is smooth and confident. His reliability has been terrific. His leg strength is still there, although Akers knows he isn't as strong as he used to be. He maintains his distance with scientific improvements, with teeny-tiny adjustments that keep him pure and true.
But he also knows that all of those good feelings can go away very quickly. No kicker in the league ever gets too comfortable.
"If I go out and miss two kicks this weekend, everybody is going to say, 'What's wrong with Dave?' That's just the way it goes. It's day to day. It's one of those things where you hit today and it feels good and you hope you are doing well and you've lived for the next day," said Akers. "You can't look to the future. It sounds like a coach, but in my position it's even more so. It's almost like a cornerback. He makes a good play and that's great, but the next play is coming and that play is all that matters.
"I have that same mentality. It's hard for people to wrap their arms around it. They want me to go out and have fun and make the kicks and it's not like that for me. My job is depending on every kick. I study every factor for one kick and then I kick and then it's over and on to the next kick. There is all of this buildup and then it's over."
In a way, Akers lives a professional life of fear of failure. It is the motivation that keeps him working harder than any kicker in the league. There is no grey area about the job: He either makes the kick or he doesn't.
So when Akers is asked about setting records and his career, he doesn't have much to say. He is thankful, and he is blessed and he knows that he will some day look back and know that he enjoyed something extremely rare in this world. But right now, it's all about the next kick. Akers learned he had set the Eagles PAT record when someone sent him a congratulatory text message the day after the win over Tampa Bay.
"I didn't have any idea," he said.
Soon, the weather is going to turn nasty and Akers is going to be even more on edge. The cold weather arrives, the wind increases and the distance on his kicks decreases. It is a vicious cycle, one that Akers has played better than any kicker in Eagles history and most kickers in NFL history. He is going strong, beyond strong. Akers, who had a career blip a couple of years ago when he missed some kicks in the 40- to 49-yard range, has it back. The stroke is there. The distance has never gone away.
And we remain lucky to take his brilliance for granted. The Professor is working every day to make himself better, to chase perfection, to make his next kick.