Phil Dawson has made 24 consecutive field goals to set a 49ers record. But 14 games into the season, he insists he still hasn’t figured out the Candlestick Park winds.
“There’s no getting used to it,” Dawson said. “What I’ve learned in my short time here is there’s really no rhyme or reason to it.”
That likely will be a moot point after today’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, the final regular-season affair at Candlestick Park. Of all the aged stadium’s quirks – the notoriously soggy field, the dollhouse-sized locker rooms – the winds are perhaps the most confounding.
According to those who have kicked there, the only thing consistent about the gusts is that you can count on them changing directions at the most inopportune moments.
“I remember lining up for kickoffs and the wind was behind me,” former 49ers kicker Ray Wersching said. “And I’m turning to the official, ‘Give me the ball. Please! Give me the ball. I’ve got the wind behind me.’ And then he gives me the ball and the wind switches.”
Home-field advantage? Since the 49ers began playing at Candlestick, opponents have made 74.3 percent of their field-goal attempts. The 49ers have made 73.5 percent of their kicks.
The question kickers are asking is whether the wind at the new stadium in Santa Clara will be as vexing. The facility is at the southern terminus of San Francisco Bay. The wind typically comes off the bay heading south and becomes strong in the early afternoon, about when most of the 49ers’ home games kick off.
What’s more, there’s an opening in the new stadium – a notch – on the northwest side, which the kickers predict will give the prevailing winds passage into the stadium.
“Hopefully, it’s not worse,” 49ers punter Andy Lee said. “It blows here (in Santa Clara) just as hard as it does there. And then that open corner is right where the wind comes from.”
Joe Nedney was the 49ers’ kicker when the team decided to build the stadium next to their practice facility and the designs were released. He said he and Lee approached owner John York one day with a request: Is there any way to rotate the stadium so the open corner isn’t facing the wind?
“He didn’t give us an answer, which tells you everything he was thinking,” Nedney said with a laugh. “It was another reminder that we were just kickers.”
The kickers who have worked in both locations believe the wind in Santa Clara is stronger than at Candlestick but is more uniform. It’s either blowing from the north or, occasionally, from the Santa Clara Valley north onto the bay.
The Candlestick wind is more peculiar. The stadium is on a peninsula, next to a steep hill that deflects some of the wind. And the odd shape of the stands – designed for baseball – causes the wind to blow in funny ways.
Said Wersching, who kicked for the team from 1977 to 1987: “The secret of playing the wind is not to play it.”
That is, it is easy for a kicker to outsmart himself.
Nedney said he used to watch the fireworks display during pregame introductions. The smoke would drift up in one direction, go another way as it reached a higher altitude and then go back again in the initial direction when it got higher still. Nedney said it took him a season to get on top of the winds.
The 2005 regular-season finale between the 49ers and Houston Texans was significant because the teams were jockeying for the worst record in the league. Houston’s Kris Brown missed a kick in the fourth quarter, but Nedney made his two attempts, including a 33-yard game-winnerthat came amid a 30-mph crosswind.
“After I hit that field goal, I felt that I had officially arrived,” Nedney said. “That was a big day for me.”
Lee acknowledged the stadium is full of idiosyncrasies that can weigh heavily on a kicker’s mind. But he said somehow they learn to live with them.
“I tell most people, ‘It’s horribly windy; it sucks; blah, blah, blah,’ ” Lee said. “But in the end, it’s been a great place. I’m sure walking off that field, probably for the last time, there’ll be a little bit of emotion there.”