Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ted Ginn Jr. adds some flair, and speed, to victory

By Mark Purdy

September 11, 2011

How thrilling and wow-inducing were Ted Ginn Jr.'s two kick-return touchdowns Sunday afternoon?

Brad Pitt now wants to play him in a movie.

The 49ers would likely have won their season opener without Ginn on the roster. But they would not have created as much excitement -- or as many video highlights, or as much hope, or as much downright amazement at the way Ginn scored touchdowns on two kick returns in the final four minutes of the game.

"I would do anything for that speed," said one of the amazed, 49ers wide receiver Joshua Morgan.

I know, I know. On a strict mathematical basis, Ginn's scores weren't the difference in the game. The 49ers beat the Seahawks by 16 points, 33-17. Therefore, when Ginn returned a kickoff 102 yards and a punt 55 yards across the goal line on his take-your-breath-away plays barely a minute apart ... well, those two touchdowns were not technically mandatory.

But they were totally necessary.

Here's why:

The 49ers desperately needed to convince their followers and themselves that this season holds actual promise rather than more false belief. They needed much more than just a grind-it-out victory over a borderline dreadful Seattle team. And without Ginn, that's all the 49ers might have accomplished Sunday.

After his two returns, though, you could almost see the confidence needle move on the 49ers sidelines and afterward, in the home locker room.

"Man, that lifted our team," said 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald.

"Speed kills," said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh of Ginn. "And he was moving."

And how did Ginn himself feel? He was surprised as anyone about getting a kickoff and punt return in the same game -- the first player in 49ers franchise history to accomplish such a feat.

"You do it on video games a lot," Ginn said. "But this ... it's a blessing."

For everyone in a 49ers uniform, especially. Ginn's first touchdown was the most critical -- because it happened immediately after Seattle had closed to within 19-17 on the scoreboard with 3:56 remaining.

Eleven seconds later, the score was 26-17. Ginn received the ball two yards deep in the end zone, sprinted out to the 15-yard line, made a hard cut right to find open space and sprinted to the goal line.

"It was like he was running a 200-meter race and hitting the curve," said 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. "I just saw him striding, and as soon as he hit the corner I said, 'Ted's gone.' "

"The play wasn't set up that way," marveled 49ers tight end Delanie Walker, who was on the kick return team. "We were set up to go left -- and he took it right."

Less than two minutes later, Seattle goofed up and kicked again to Ginn, this time on a punt. He found a seam up the middle and ran untouched for six more points.

If the Seahawks appeared slightly fooled, that's because they were. Coach Pete Carroll made a remarkable admission afterward.

"Honestly, we didn't think Teddy Ginn was going to play," Carroll said. "He didn't do much in the preseason."

This was correct. During the 49ers four preseason games, Ginn returned a total of one punt and one kickoff. The others were handled mostly by rookie Kendall Hunter. As recently as last Friday, Harbaugh had said Hunter was a likely candidate to be the kick returner.

But that was a smoke screen. Ginn said he knew all along that he'd be handling both duties.

"It was always in the plan," Ginn said.

In one sense, yes. In another sense, no. Ginn came to the 49ers in a 2010 trade with Miami and brought a large-money contract with him. This season, he was scheduled to earn $2.2 million. But last week, Ginn agreed to take a pay cut down to $1 million. The easy conclusion: Ginn was told if he didn't accept a lower salary, he'd be gone. Ginn decided to stay.

"I'm a team player," Ginn said. "It's not always about money. You come in, you play the game. And as you play the game, good things should happen for you."

The experience may have humbled him a bit. On his kickoff return after he broke free, he held up the football with one hand 20 yards before he hit the goal line -- only to quickly draw it back to his body.

"I looked up at the Jumbotron and saw that there was a guy behind me," Ginn explained.

So maybe he's just a practical guy. Ginn left the locker room Sunday carrying the game ball presented to him by his teammates, but also wearing a modest striped shirt and a pair of old-school black Converse All-Stars. He's got four more pairs of All-Stars at home, in various colors.

And get this: Ginn was a track and field athlete in high school but only ran the 110-meter hurdles and 200-meter races. Why not the 100 meters?

"I wasn't fast enough for that one," Ginn said. "I was running it in 10.5 seconds, and there were guys doing 10.3."

Not in a football uniform, they weren't. Ginn's performance Sunday will affect the way every opponent approaches the 49ers to this point. And how much more promising is the 49ers' season now as opposed to a week ago?

About 11 seconds worth.

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