Experienced toe is way to go

After last year's debacle, the kicking game wasn't going to be an afterthought for the 49ers this season. You've probably heard that one before, but after three years of entering the season with an unproven kicker who didn't exactly inspire confidence throughout the locker room and coaching staff, the Niners have moved early to ensure they won't make that mistake again in 2004.

The Niners agreed to terms Tuesday with 11th-year veteran Todd Peterson to return as their placekicker this year. While the team no doubt would have liked to have paid less for a kicker than Peterson's tenured veteran's salary, it's about time the Niners put a little emphasis on this area and gave the position some stability and continuity after years of still wondering who their kicker would be during training camp in July.

That role now unequivocally belongs to Peterson, who brought a calming, veteran presence to a San Francisco kicking game that was in disarray when he arrived on the scene last year at midseason. He arrived too late to prevent the kicking follies the team experienced earlier in the year with Jeff Chandler and Owen Pochman, but his second-half audition was enough to convince everyone that having an experienced toe on the roster is the way to go.

Peterson was the fourth kicker employed by the Niners in 15 games when he replaced Pochman in late October. Peterson wasn't spectacular, and his leg strength is nothing special. But he made every field goal he attempted between 30 and 50 yards. If the Niners had had that kind of performance from their kicker last season before Peterson arrived, they might have been headed for the playoffs instead of a losing season.

Perhaps just as important as Peterson's physical ability is the hard-working, team-player, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-NFL ethic he brings to the locker room. It has been a long time since the Niners have been able to look toward their kicker as a veteran, team-leader type. With the roster undergoing a youth overhaul, this isn't a bad time for that.

And in equally good news, the attention to the kicking game isn't ending with Peterson. As the team searches to replace Bill LaFleur, the Niners are looking for an established veteran punter to compete in training camp with the host of unproven youngsters the team has signed to the roster in the offseason.

Earlier this month, the Niners made overtures to San Diego free agent Darren Bennett, perhaps the top veteran punter on the open market. Bennett apparently prefers to kick in a dome, so the Niners on Tuesday brought in seven-year veteran Toby Gowin, who has had years of previous success in the league and also has a big leg that could be used to complement Peterson on kickoffs.

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