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March 23, 2014
Phil Dawson has a point: 49ers kicker leery of possible rule changes

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ORLANDO -- Extra points have become far too easy in the NFL. But don't tell that to the guys who kick them for a living.

"I wouldn't call anything out there easy," 49ers kicker Phil Dawson said last week. "I mean, anybody's that's ever played golf knows the three-foot putt is the most stressful."

Still, Dawson, a 15-year veteran, avoided the extra-point yips last season, converting all 44 of his attempts. In fact, the NFL had only five misses in 1,267 attempts in 2013, a 99.6 percent success rate that some officials consider so efficient it has become the most boring play in sports.

The league's owners are meeting in Orlando this week to decide whether to add more spice to the one-point play, including a proposal to move extra-point kicks from the 2-yard line to the 25-yard line. The league is unlikely to alter extra points for the 2014 season but it could experiment with longer attempts and other ideas in the preseason.

Dawson has mixed feelings. He's been one of the top long-range kickers in recent seasons, and he said he's all for highlighting the kicker's skills. But he certainly doesn't want to see the position diminished.

The league already is toying with the idea of eliminating kickoffs, which produce some of the biggest collisions and most serious injuries, including concussions, in the game. A longer extra-point attempt also might keep the kicker on the sideline.

Moving the ball to the 25-yard line would be the equivalent of a 43-yard field goal attempt. In 2013, the conversion rate for field goals from 40-49 yards was 83 percent. Meanwhile, the success rate for two-point conversions historically has been just under 50 percent, which suggests that going for two -- the line of scrimmage would remain on the 2-yard line for such an attempt -- would be the smarter option.

"If the motivation is, 'kicking is a lesser play than any other play' or, 'we need to take this play out of football,' I'm obviously not in favor of that," Dawson said. "It would be a mistake. There are some guys that are really good at what they do. I think the NFL should make rules that showcase that."

It may be that kickers are becoming victims of their own success. In 1970, they made about 59 percent of their field goals. Back then, however, they had a bulky offensive lineman snapping the ball and a backup quarterback -- who took a few snaps at the end of practice -- serving as holder.

Now the snapper is a smaller, specialized player and the holder usually is the punter. The three work together throughout practice and during pre-game warm-ups, and they have become quite efficient at their craft. Last season, kickers made 86.6 percent of their field-goal attempts. Dawson, 39, made 88.9 percent of his, including 4-6 attempts from 50 yards or longer.

"When I started out, if you made 75 percent of your field goals, your job was safe for the next year," he said. "Now if you don't get above 80 (percent), you're going to find yourself with a little competition in camp the next year."

Dawson isn't against against altering the rules to make kicking more challenging. One idea is adding another cross bar atop of the uprights to create a rectangular target. Another proposal calls for more narrow uprights, something that NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay said has traction among league owners.

"We have had some really good discussions about that," McKay said. "I do not think there is enough momentum to do it this year, but I think there will be discussions with the goal post going forward."

Also discussed: Eliminating the extra point altogether and making a touchdown seven points instead of six. That's where Dawson puts his foot down.

"If they want to narrow the goal posts or make extra points longer, I'm all for that," he said. "But let's come at it from the standpoint that we want to celebrate what we're doing as opposed to, 'Oh kicking -- it's too easy and it's not important like the other plays and we should phase it out.' ... I don't like that line of thinking at all, and I couldn't disagree more with it."

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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