Commentary

Ted Ginn Jr. slashes coverage units

Shrugging off pay cut, Niner makes his case that speed rules on kickoff returns

Originally Published: September 16, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

He had 1.2 million reasons to be bitter. No one would have blamed him. But Ted Ginn Jr. insisted he was neither bitter nor angry at the San Francisco 49ers for essentially forcing him to take a more than 50 percent pay cut last week, right before the season started.

It is hard to believe that a man could get his salary slashed from $2.2 million to $1 million and he isn't even the slightest bit miffed. But then again, look at the performance.

When the Niners needed him most Sunday, Ginn came up huge. He had two returns for touchdowns in the span of a minute late in the fourth quarter that put Seattle away and gave Jim Harbaugh the first win of his NFL coaching career.

Ginn did not even learn he would return kicks until right before the game. It didn't matter.

"It's great when you can give back to your team and be a special player," Ginn said. "That's all you ask for, somebody to rise to the occasion. Me and my other 10 guys on special teams, we rose."

That they did, and they weren't alone.

After a 4½-month hiatus thanks to the lockout, football returned in full force last weekend, and although it wasn't as sloppy as it could have been had the preseason been significantly shortened, there were issues. Look at the numbers -- an NFL-record 7,842 net passing yards in Week 1, 14 quarterbacks who threw for at least 300 yards, eight returners who scored touchdowns. Defenses took a big hit. Coverage units, too.

[+] EnlargeTed Ginn
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireTed Ginn Jr. will be a free agent next year -- the tradeoff for a $1.2 million pay cut.

Although the lack of minicamps and a reduction in practice time certainly can be blamed for missed assignments and shoddy tackling, particularly by young players on special teams, Ginn said he thought the fastest players simply gained an edge. Speed has always killed, but it could be that now -- at least in the early part of this season while players continue to play themselves into game shape -- it is an even more lethal weapon.

Consider kickoff returns. After the NFL owners voted in March to move kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35-yard line, the kickoff return was supposed to be dead. The rule had one of its desired effects: limiting returns and the potential for full-speed, high-impact collisions.

According to ESPN's Stats & Information, 48.8 percent of all kickoffs in Week 1 resulted in touchbacks, the highest percentage since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The Elias Sports Bureau, which disregards onside kicks when calculating kickoffs resulting in touchbacks, put the percentage even higher, at 50.6.

Yet there were three kickoff returns taken out of one end zone and into the other. Ginn broke one for 102 yards. Minnesota's Percy Harvin took one 103 yards. Green Bay rookie Randall Cobb busted his for 108 yards.

"Well, I thought we would never get a kickoff return, period, but I see that changed," Ginn said. "I think it just really depends on your judgment, how that team comes down, the actual speed of the other team, and if you've got good speed. That extra 5 yards they took away hurts the returner, but if the [coverage] team isn't fast, it balances out."

Ginn said he has the green light to take the ball out of the end zone, no matter how deep. He now lines up about 4 yards into the end zone, instead of at the 1-yard line, and has to judge whether he can at get at least to the 20-yard line. Some players get that leeway, some don't.

Ginn does, in part because he's one of the fastest players on his team. He's also been returning kicks, he said, since high school. Before Sunday, Ginn had two career kickoff returns for touchdowns (both against the New York Jets while with Miami in 2009) and two punt returns for touchdowns.

Although the coverage units certainly will improve as the season goes on, Ginn hopes to continue to have an impact. His role as a wide receiver in the Niners' offense is likely to be limited, but he will get a chance on special teams. In exchange for conceding the pay cut, Ginn got the final year of his contract negated. After this season, he will be a free agent, so he essentially is auditioning for other teams. Ginn also has incentives that allow him to earn back the money he gave up this year. Sunday was a good start.

"I'm a team player," Ginn said. "I do what my team asks me to do. That was the best thing for our team at the time, so I did it."

First the contract. Then the returns. He walked off the field with three footballs: the game ball and the ones he used on his touchdowns.

When he checked his phone, Ginn had 40 text messages, including one from another Ohio State product, Terry Glenn.

"He just told me congratulations," Ginn said. "I didn't even know he still had my number."

Ginn had the Seahawks' number. Until coverage units get more reps in practice and in games, look for other returners to have big games as well. Ginn just hopes to be one of them.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.