- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Coach Jim Harbaugh got a five-year, $25 million contract to remake the San Francisco 49ers, particularly on offense.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. got an ultimatum: Take a pay cut, or be prepared for what happens when players refuse them.
Ginn, one week after taking a steep reduction in salary, bailed out Harbaugh's offense Sunday with two fourth-quarter touchdown returns. The irony was utterly implausible during the 49ers' 33-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park.
Ginn became the first player in 49ers history to return a kickoff (102 yards) and a punt (55 yards) for touchdowns in the same game. Both came in the final four minutes of a game San Francisco had controlled, but was struggling to put away. Fans eager to see Harbaugh channel Bill Walsh instead watched the 49ers convert only once in 12 third-down chances on their way to 209 yards and 12 first downs.
Without Ginn, the game ball would have gone to Jimmy Raye or any other ex-coordinators 49ers fans love to hate.
"I thought our offense had a very blue-collar type of day," Harbaugh said.
Or, as tight end Delanie Walker put it, "Ted basically won the game for us."
Of course, now is not the time to pass definitive judgment upon an offense that understandably remains in the very early stages of its development. With a new coaching staff, new playbooks and Alex Smith still at quarterback, the 49ers weren't going to operate the way Green Bay and New Orleans performed during their memorable opener Thursday night. They were going to need time. They will eventually need a new quarterback.
But if this Sunday in the NFC West was any indication -- it's all we have -- the 49ers have to like their chances in the division.
The favored St. Louis Rams lost quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson, receiver Danny Amendola, right tackle Jason Smith and cornerback Ron Bartell to injuries during their 31-13 home defeat to Philadelphia. The Arizona Cardinals watched Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton amass 422 yards passing against them, prevailing 28-21 only after rookie Patrick Peterson scored on a punt return.
Then there were the Seahawks. They can feel very good about their defense, particularly against the run. Frank Gore, once the Seahawks' worst nightmare, now has only 89 yards on his last 39 carries against Seattle. He struggled to average 2.7 yards per carry Sunday. The Seahawks will be tough to run against as long as they have Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane on their defensive line. Free safety Earl Thomas was everywhere, matching strong safety Kam Chancellor with two tackles for loss. Aaron Curry had his moments, too.
Yet, even with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson exceeding very low outside expectations for him, this offense will struggle to score points consistently. A trip to Pittsburgh in Week 2 should provide the necessary confirmation even if top wideout Sidney Rice returns from a shoulder injury. He was a late scratch from the opener.
Jackson tossed two touchdown passes, and his lone interception came on a meaningless Hail Mary to end the first half. But he took five sacks and the Seahawks trailed 16-0 at halftime. They finished with 64 yards rushing on 22 attempts. Seattle fielded the least-experienced offensive line to start an NFL game since 1995, based on combined starts. The Seahawks' only chance is to avoid turnovers, run the ball, play tough defense and prevail on special teams. They failed on nearly every count.
"Very disappointed that this is the way that it happened," coach Pete Carroll said.
Over in the 49ers' locker room, there were many futile efforts from reporters to divine broader meaning from a game that didn't offer very much that way.
Harbaugh met Smith with a hug following the quarterback's hard-fought, 1-yard scramble for a touchdown. Harbaugh entrusted Smith with greater responsibility by calling a couple of downfield throws early in the fourth quarter, when Seattle had made it a one-score game at 16-10. Harbaugh said he thought Smith played "exceptionally well" despite only 124 yards and all the third-down struggles.
Pretty meaningless at this point.
Every game need not become a referendum on Smith or what Harbaugh thinks about Smith. The 49ers' one-year bet on their 2005 first-round draft choice should not be mistaken for a long-term investment. Sure, there's a chance Harbaugh will coax long-sought growth from Smith, turning him into the answer at quarterback. That is not what we saw happen Sunday.
Smith gets it. Asked if this victory provided any early vindication for the faith Harbaugh has shown in him to this point, Smith offered the appropriate perspective.
"I don't know about vindication," Smith said. "It's 1-0. That is great."
What we saw Sunday, mostly, were two struggling offenses matched against two tough defenses, and a return specialist who upstaged them all.
This was supposed to be the season when rules changes killed the kickoff return specialist.
"That's what they said," 49ers receiver Joshua Morgan said. "[Ginn] just shut them up."
Ginn has what cannot be coached: raw speed.
"When he was born, he ran out his mother," Morgan said. "He ran a 4.1, for real. He's all legs, little upper body that he got is all muscle. He runs like a 4.27, but for real, he runs as fast as he needs to run."
Ginn scored a return touchdown against the Rams last season. He scored twice on kick returns for the Miami Dolphins against the New York Jets in 2009. He has enjoyed two strong training camps with the 49ers, but a knee injury in the 2010 opener cost him.
The only man in position to gloat at Candlestick Park thought better of it.
"I'm a team player," he said. "It's not always about money. You come in and play the game, and as you play the game, good things should happen for you."
Give the man a raise.