One week before the start of this NFL season, Ted Ginn Jr. lost a million dollars. He has spent the last two months trying to get it all back.
When the Browns travel to Candlestick Park today to face the San Francisco 49ers, they’ll see a familiar face in Ginn, who has needed every bit of his blinding speed this season to outrace the “bust” tag that has chased him for the past five years.
Ginn is flourishing with the 49ers, averaging 31.8 yards per kickoff return to rank second in the league. His 13.7-yard average on punt returns is fifth. The 49ers have reduced his offensive responsibilities while letting him flourish as a return specialist. That always seemed to be the role best suited for him even during his days at Ohio State, but the Miami Dolphins fell in love with that speed and selected Ginn ninth overall in the 2007 draft.
Fans despised the pick, booing Ginn from the day he was drafted until last year when he was traded to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft.
“It was much needed,” Ginn said of the trade. “It’s how you get embraced. I was in a situation [in Miami] where we needed to win and win now. It wasn’t a good time to teach and learn.”
His father, Ted Ginn Sr., said this week Ginn does his best when he feels wanted and needed. That never really seemed to happen in Miami, but he has it with the 49ers.
“Ted is a relationship guy,” Ginn Sr. said. “He believes in relationships and he’s a team guy. He loves to win and contribute. When he’s not contributing, he’s a different guy. The expectation for him to do things is there now. That’s the difference.”
After the NFL lockout was settled, the 49ers approached Ginn about taking a pay cut, presumably in order to keep him on the roster. Ginn agreed, reportedly trimming his salary from $2.2 million to $1 million with the ability to get $400,000 back in incentives. One week after signing the new deal, Ginn returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the 49ers’ season-opening win over the Seattle Seahawks.
That’s bad news for the Browns, whose coverage units have struggled this season. The Browns allowed a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown two weeks ago to the Oakland Raiders, then last week were bailed out when a Seahawks punt return for a touchdown was nullified by a phantom block-in-the-back penalty.
It’s no coincidence the Niners are flourishing under special teams coach Brad Seely, who held the same role with the Browns last year. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh had no previous ties to Seely, but was quick to snatch him up when the Browns did not retain him following the firing of coach Eric Mangini.
Together, Seely and Ginn have alleviated a huge concern for Harbaugh, who said Ginn might be the fastest player he’s ever coached.
“He can run like the wind blows,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been huge for us this year.”
Yet despite all of his production on special teams, Ginn continues to resist calling himself a return specialist. He insists he is a receiver first, despite having just six catches this season. He has two receptions in his past four games.
“I always look at myself as a receiver. It just hasn’t come around for me yet, but at the same time, it has,” Ginn said. “I have a couple of catches and I get on the field a lot of times as a receiver. Slowly but surely.”
Ginn will be a free agent at the end of the season and will be able to cash in if he remains dangerous as a returner. He often compares himself to Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester, who signed a four-year deal worth at least $15 million in guaranteed money prior to the 2008 season.
The Bears gave him that money believing he would develop into a legitimate No. 1 receiver, which hasn’t happened. But Ginn could still cash in with another hefty payday after the season.
For now, he is enjoying his time in San Francisco, where he has been reunited with safety Donte Whitner. The two played together in high school under Ginn Sr. at Glenville, then were teammates again at Ohio State and now in the NFL. Last year quarterback Troy Smith joined Ginn in San Francisco. The two were childhood friends who also played together at Glenville and Ohio State, but Smith has moved on to the United Football League this season.
Seeing so many of his former players on one NFL team, including his son, leaves Ginn Sr. beaming.
“To play together in high school, college and the NFL is a huge accomplishment,” Ginn Sr. said. “We have always worked hard to be examples to others in our community that anything is possible when you work hard. For them to be on the same team and to see them play together in three different programs, that’s a blessing.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.