Billy Cundiff, sporting a crisp new white No. 6 jersey, had an impressive first day of practice with the San Francisco 49ers while kicking alongside struggling veteran David Akers as coach Jim Harbaugh closely watched.
Cundiff signed a one-year contract Tuesday with the NFC West champion Niners (11-4-1) to compete with Akers as Harbaugh and his staff determine who will handle the kicking duties for San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoffs Jan. 12 at Candlestick Park.
Akers revealed Thursday not only did he receive death threats last month via Twitter, he also underwent surgery for a double hernia last February and then had a flare-up in November. After a win at New Orleans on Nov. 25, Akers returned to Philadelphia for injections from the doctor who performed his procedure.
"People talk about my demeanor being down, listen, I take my job seriously," Akers said. "I feel when I miss kicks I let the team, the organization, the fans down. I take it personal. I guess sometimes I care too much about it. That's just kind of who I am. I have no problem talking to y'all and being real. It's been disappointing. I'm disappointed in myself. There's nothing I can really do about it now. I can't go back in the past. Try today to get better and figure out why they're not going between the poles. If I had an answer I would have fixed it a long time ago."
The 32-year-old Cundiff, who missed a potential tying 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the AFC championship game that sent New England to the Super Bowl last season instead of the Baltimore Ravens, connected from as far out as 55 yards Thursday afternoon while using a portable holder. He was 10 of 12 overall, including 7 for 8 with Andy Lee holding.
Akers went 16 for 21 in an unofficial media count during the open portion of practice.
While Akers and Cundiff went about their jobs with no time for small talk, general manager Trent Baalke briefly chatted with Cundiff as the newcomer walked down the field to work on kickoffs. At one moment, Harbaugh walked nearly a full field to shag footballs under the uprights.
Akers and Cundiff know each other well, having played for the same coach and been in the 2010 Pro Bowl together.
Neither kicker knows what's next, or when he might learn who has won the job — if anybody, that is. Harbaugh might go into next weekend's game without having named a starter.
"For me, it has been laid out very clearly," Cundiff said. "It's, go out and practice well. Don't worry about anything else. Just give us your best. It's the head coach's decision, management's decision, on who's going to kick. So, I'm not going to worry about anything else. I'm just going to go out there and try to have the best practices I can."
Akers twice missed wide right from 43 yards and again on a 48-yard try, while also coming up short from 52 and 53 yards.
For a franchise determined to take the next step and reach this year's Super Bowl after coming so close last season, Harbaugh is serious about finding a kicker he can count on — even if his choice of Cundiff is puzzling to some who remember his devastating miss for Harbaugh's big brother, John, and the Ravens a year ago.
Yet Cundiff tried out once in late November and again this week, and got his chance. He had seven tryouts in all over the recent months before landing his new job at last.
Akers, who made 44 of 52 attempts in his sensational 2011 season, is just 29 for 42 this year. The six-time Pro Bowler and 15-year veteran is only 7 for 13 from 40-49 yards. He did connect from 63 yards in a season-opening win at Green Bay when the ball bounced off the crossbar in through the uprights.
He missed overtime kicks twice against the Rams this season, with the 49ers losing at St. Louis and tying at home.
"I would definitely give that 63-yarder back to make the two kicks against St. Louis," Akers said.
The 38-year-old Akers signed a three-year contract as arguably the 49ers' biggest offseason acquisition ahead of the 2011 season aside from the hiring of Harbaugh. And he delivered at nearly every opportunity — until recently.
He also had a 21-yard attempt blocked by Red Bryant in a 42-13 loss at Seattle on Dec. 23, and Richard Sherman returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. Yet Akers has made at least one field goal in 33 consecutive games, the second-longest such streak in NFL history.
Cundiff was released by the Washington Redskins on Oct. 9 after missing 5 of his 12 field goal attempts. The journeyman Cundiff joins his sixth team in 10 NFL seasons. He has also played for Dallas, New Orleans and Cleveland.
He has stayed ready week after week by counting down the NFL season on a whiteboard in his garage, where he works out.
"I was always mentally prepared for whatever situation was going to happen. I've been doing this for a while now," Cundiff said.
He can certainly relate to some of what Akers is going through.
"Well, everyone deals with it a little different. It's tough," Cundiff said. "As my wife and I have talked about, things are a little different when you're in the fire. It's tough to find the right perspective that you normally get in the offseason."
Notes: Defensive lineman Justin Smith practiced with a brace over his injured left arm as he recovers from a partially torn triceps muscle that sidelined him for the final two regular-season games. "You just go out there and play 'til you can't and be ready," Smith said. "I feel like I'll be ready."
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