As wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. visited prospective teams this past offseason during his free agent tour, one thing stuck out about the Carolina Panthers.
Besides being on the verge of playoff contention in Ginn’s estimation, he thought the Panthers had something to prove.
So did he.
Ginn was San Francisco’s punt returner during the 49ers’ Super Bowl season in 2012, but he was the forgotten man in their receiving rotation. Ginn, a former first-round draft pick from Ohio State, caught two passes for 1 yard.
By comparison, rookie tight end Garrett Celek – the only undrafted free agent to make the Niners’ roster and the lesser-known, younger brother of Eagles tight end Brent Celek – had four receptions.
Neither Ginn nor Niners coach Jim Harbaugh shed much light on Ginn’s disappearing act this week as the Panthers prepared for Sunday’s game at San Francisco.
“I don’t even harp on it anymore,” Ginn said Thursday after practice. “I came here, got with my guys here. They brought me in with open arms, taught me the ropes. Now I got the opportunity to show what I have, and that’s all I’m doing.”
Ginn has shown he still has plenty of speed. His emergence as a deep threat has helped open the field for wide receivers Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen.
But the Panthers aren’t using Ginn strictly as a decoy. His 21 receptions at the midpoint of the season are more than during his best full season in San Francisco in 2011, when he caught 19 passes for 220 yards in Harbaugh’s first year with the Niners.
But when San Francisco signed free agent receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss before the 2012 season to team with Michael Crabtree, it bumped Ginn down the depth chart. By the time Ginn came back from an ankle injury that sidelined him the first three games of the season, he was relegated to the punt return role.
But Harbaugh disagreed when it was suggested Ginn had been caught in a numbers crunch at receiver.
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Harbaugh said. “Teddy was a great contributor here both as a receiver and special teams.”
Ginn has been a much bigger contributor with Carolina, although it took hamstring injuries to wideouts Armanti Edwards and Domenik Hixon, another free agent acquisition, during training camp for Ginn to see an expanded role.
“You knew he was fast. He was a deep-ball threat. ... Bringing Ted in I don’t think was necessarily as big a leap as people are making it out to be,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The biggest thing that happened for Ted was he got his opportunity to be part of the rotation after the guys that we’re competing for our third spot both got hurt.”
Ginn had a huge preseason, catching nine passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns, and returning a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in an exhibition at Baltimore.
Ginn, 28, has continued to produce during the regular season. He has two of the Panthers’ three longest receptions – touchdowns of 40 yards at Buffalo and 47 yards against the Giants – but dropped a long Cam Newton pass in a win at Tampa Bay two weeks ago.
Ginn is tied for fifth in the NFL in yards-per-catch average (17.5) among receivers with at least 17 receptions.
It has served as vindication for a player who never figured out what happened in San Francisco.
“You go one year, catch almost 40 balls,” said Ginn, an apparent reference to his 38-catch season with Miami in 2009 before the Dolphins traded him to San Francisco. “You come back ... you catch two. You kind of look at yourself and see what you did wrong. There wasn’t a lot of it that was wrong. You just go out and continue to be you.”
Ginn found ways to make an impact during the Niners’ Super Bowl season, finishing third in the NFC with a punt return average of 10.2 yards. He set up the game-winning touchdown in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta with a 20-yard punt return to the Falcons’ 38 in the fourth quarter.
“I had a good relationship with Ted. I liked him a lot,” 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “We were pretty good friends, and the success he’s been having doesn’t surprise me or I think anyone else here. He’s a good receiver.”
“He’s a very fast man,” Harbaugh said of Ginn, who missed two to three games in each of his three seasons with San Francisco. “He’s stayed healthy and he’s played well.”
Rivera said he can tell this week means a lot to Ginn, who has been telling teammates what to expect from the 49ers.
“I’m going to enjoy it. I hope that we get a win,” Ginn said. “I don’t care if I don’t score or do nothing, as long as we come out with a win that’d be great for me.”
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