Something to punt for

Mike Nolan reiterated Wednesday that the offseason begins this week for the 49ers. But while several players will be auditioning for 2007 jobs during Sunday's season finale at Denver, Andy Lee still has something significant to aim for against the Broncos. Lee is quietly having one of the best seasons in four decades by a 49ers punter, and he can finish this season with the numbers to prove it.

All Lee has to do Sunday is have an average day against the Broncos to finish with the highest average by a San Francisco punter in the past 41 seasons. Ostensibly, he'll be in the right place to end the season with a strong performance. The thin air in the Mile High City can be a punter's best friend.

But Lee isn't counting his boomers before they're kicked. Denver also has been known to be tough on punters.

"You definitely can tell that the ball flies a little better there," said Lee, who kicked at Denver when the 49ers played a preseason game there last summer. "But it's also supposed to be 34 degrees (at kickoff). In good weather, it matters. But I've never played in the high elevation being so cold. I'm not sure what it will do. It's still going to be a challenge, just because the balls aren't going to fly as well when the temperature is so cold."

But after playing half his games in the tricky winds of Monster Park the past three seasons, Lee already has faced just about every challenge known to the NFL's best punters. And don't look now, but he quickly is becoming one of them.

Lee currently ranks sixth in the league with a career-high 44.8 average, and he'll finish higher in the NFL rankings than any 49ers punter in the past 30 years unless he has an utterly horrible day against the Broncos.

But Lee hasn't been having too many of those lately.

The third-year veteran has averaged 45 yards or better on punts each of the past five games, and his 49.3 average during last week's home loss against Arizona was his best in San Francisco since joining the 49ers as their sixth-round draft choice in 2004.

Lee has finished with a 48.0 average or better in five of San Francisco's last 10 games, including back-to-back games of 51.5 and 50.3 - the best so far in his career - in the domes of St. Louis and New Orleans.

"It's definitely special for me," Lee said Wednesday. "I'm hitting the ball real well right now. But I'm just trying to finish out this game strong and not really worry about where I'm at right now and where I'm going to be. I just need to do what I can to help us win this game."

Lee's punting has been an unheralded factor in San Francisco's improvement this year, helping the 49ers consistently in the battle of field position.

Lee's recent surge has him in position to finish with the highest average by a 49ers punter since Tommy Davis set the franchise record of 45.8 in 1965, which ended a run of five consecutive seasons with a 45.4 average or better by Davis.

Tommy Thompson's 44.1 average in 1996 is the best by a San Francisco punter since then. Thompson finished 10th in the NFL and fourth in the NFC that season, the highest finish for a San Francisco punter since Tom Wittum was third in the NFL with a 40.8 average in 1976.

Lee averaged 41.6 yards last season - the same average as his rookie season in 2004 - when his 107 punts set a new franchise record. That average was good enough to place Lee among the top five seasons by a 49ers punter since Davis - who also doubled as San Francisco's place-kicker - left town after the 1969 season with a team-record 44.7 career average.

Lee has added more than three yards to his average this season while still placing the ball strategically to avoid touchbacks and big runbacks. Lee's eight touchbacks this year are the fewest among the NFL's top seven punters.

"I don't think my leg's any stronger," Lee said. "It just basically comes down to just hitting the ball more consistently, hitting it more solid and not having those shorter punts that I've had in the past.

"I've worked on some technique things and I've shortened up my steps. Now I have a little more control over my body and I'm getting the mechanical things down. I also feel more confident out there, going out on the field a little more relaxed than I was in the past. I'm not nervous. I'm just out there having fun like you're supposed to do, focusing on what I'm supposed to do. All of those things really contribute to punting and hitting better balls."

Lee also has learned some of the secrets of punting at Candlestick Point, which is notoriously one of the worst venues for NFL punters. Lee averaged 45 yards or better in five games at San Francisco this season.

"It's a tough place to punt," he said. "It's been a learning experience going there every week and just learning how to punt in that stadium and how to do things to take advantage of days when the wind's not as bad versus some days when it is. Actually, I just kick the ball. That's one of the things you have to learn. It's one of the toughest places to punt in the NFL, but you've got to put that out of your mind. It's got to be, go out there, kick the ball, do what you've got to do, and hope the wind doesn't mess with it. That's kind of how I go about it now."

Lee's improvement isn't something that's going unnoticed. The 49ers haven't had a punter last three seasons since Thompson was around, but Lee is changing all that.

"He's clearly a better punter today than he was a year ago," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "As of late, he's probably punted as well as he has in his career."

Nolan provided Lee with some stiff competition this summer when the 49ers brought in 13-year veteran Tom Rouen to challenge for the job during training camp.

Rouen put the heat on Lee, punting extremely well during both training camp and the preseason, when he had a 45.3 average and an excellent 40.1 net. It appeared that Rouen out-performed Lee, who finished the preseason with a 40.3 average and 34.9 net. But Lee punted well enough during the summer to stick with the team.

The 49ers certainly aren't disappointed they stuck with the young pro.

"What I've been most impressed with in Andy is that he has responded well to the competition," Nolan said. "When we brought in Rouen, I told (Lee) he was going to have to win his job, and he was going to have to beat out a veteran. I wasn't bringing a rook in, because that (would) not be creating any competition for Andy to get better. I was curious to see how he would deal with the competition. As it turns out, I think he grew up this past training camp a little bit, and through the season, he has done the same thing."

The result has been the best season by a San Francisco punter in four decades. And Lee says he's not done growing in the role just yet.

"I'm hitting the ball better than I ever have in the past, and more consistently," he said. "I can definitely say that I'm helping the team at this point, and I feel good about it. I feel like I've made a stride toward being the punter here for a long time."

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