There are few objects or humans capable of slowing Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. when he pins his personal throttle and buries the needle.
Just ask Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had about a five-yard head start on Ginn after an interception during Sunday's NFC Championship Game. Yet Ginn still made a touchdown-saving tackle.
Or go ahead and ask any Cardinals defender who tackled nothing but the air vacated by Ginn as he blazed by on his 22-yard touchdown run. He scored on a reverse, a play that puts the grass burner in space—his natural habitat.
But there may be one source of kryptonite that can slow the galloping 30-year-old who’s gone from draft bust to difference-maker and from castaway to core contributor. Unless he’s changed his sweet-toothed ways, his weakness is candy.
“I don’t know if he still does it, but he always had to have candy in his pants during practice,” Darrell Hazell, Ginn’s former position coach at Ohio State and the current head coach at Purdue, told Bleacher Report. “He’d come up to me in the middle of practice and offer me some candy out of his pockets and I’d just be like, ‘Would you get away from me?!’”
“We had a Thursday meeting, and he was rushing to get there. He stubbed his toe on the door and broke it. Why was he running late? Because he was raiding the secretary’s candy dish.”
Ginn spent the 2015 season collecting something else that’s just as delicious: touchdowns. He had 10 TD receptions after recording just 11 over his previous eight NFL seasons. It was startling production from a receiver who seemed destined to enter the journeyman phase of his career.
Now we look at Ginn as he prepares for Super Bowl 50 and see a field-stretching vertical weapon who fits perfectly within the Panthers offense.
He capitalizes when defenses have to edge closer toward the line of scrimmage, respecting both quarterback Cam Newton’s rushing ability and the downhill bulldozing of running back Jonathan Stewart. And since secondaries are forced to fear Ginn’s sonic speed, he opens up space underneath for tight end Greg Olsen.
So as you watched Ginn pile up his 739 receiving yards this season and become a central figure in the Panthers’ playoff success, it was natural to get a little confused.
That confusion grows, and it turns into a sort of missing person investigation. You start going back and forth, looking first at Ginn’s game film showing consistent separation and then the ballooning production it resulted in.
Which is when you arrive at the question: How did he disappear for so long?
|Ted Ginn, now and then|
|Totals in 2015||44||739||10|
|Receiving averages over previous eight seasons||26.4||349.3||1.4|
Your bewilderment reaches another level when you try to process more digits associated with Ginn and his Panthers presence.
Ginn averaged 16.8 yards per reception in 2015 while paired with Newton’s booming arm, which was also a single-season career high. Of his 10 touchdowns, nearly half (four) came on throws traveling 20-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
Even more remarkably, Ginn has spent two seasons with the Panthers, playing 31 regular-season games. During that time, he’s accumulated 1,295 yards. Over 104 games elsewhere, the ninth overall pick in 2007 piled up only 2,238 yards. That means 36.7 percent of his production as a receiver has come in Carolina.
This is the point when your confusion crosses over into curiosity. Or at least, that’s the effect this little journey had on me, which is why I went back to the beginning.
I wanted to know where the Ginn who was worthy of a first-round pick went and why in his ninth season we’re finally witnessing the peak of his potential.
The answer, it seems, is Ginn never really went anywhere at all.
It All Started with a Switch
Ginn finished his collegiate career at Ohio State with 1,943 receiving yards. He also excelled as a returner, scoring eight touchdowns and averaging 25.6 yards per punt return in 2004.
His receiving totals were especially impressive when you remember he wasn’t recruited at that position. As a cornerback, Ginn was named USA Today’s 2003 high school Defensive Player of the Year.
Immediately, then, he was learning and adjusting to a completely new position at Ohio State. It was a process that went quickly.
“When you watch his development over those three years we had him, it was just amazing how he picked everything up so fast,” Hazell said.
“When he left, he was still just scratching the surface of being a good player as a receiver.”
Pushing Ginn along further and getting him to break through that surface became the Miami Dolphins’ responsibility. The allure of an ESPN-reported 40-yard dash time of 4.28 was too much, and the Dolphins selected him with their first-round pick in 2007.
Ginn was expected to be a franchise-changing talent right away. While carrying around the weight of those expectations, he watched plenty of fluttering footballs tossed in his direction from Cleo Lemon, Trent Green and John Beck.
Then there was hope in 2008, when a new coaching staff arrived and Ginn was under the guidance of offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
During his second season, Ginn finished with 790 receiving yards, which still stands as his career single-year high. When Henning looks back on the Ginn he worked with then and compares him to the Ginn we’re seeing now, there’s not much of a difference.
“To me, the way they’re using Ted in Carolina, he’s the straw that stirs the drink,” he said, also noting how much space Ginn opens up for Olsen.
“I have a great deal of respect for what’s going on there in Carolina. They know how to use this guy. He’s not going to catch 12 or 13 balls a game and take a pounding over the middle because he’ll get killed. He’s slightly built (Ginn is 5’11”, 185 pounds) and not built for that. But they use him on deep outs, deep comebacks, go routes and on the post. If you don’t cover him well, he’s going to cause you a problem.”
For Ginn, though, the real problem after his time with Henning is what came next.
The Forgotten Years
The Dolphins traded Ginn to the San Francisco 49ers in 2010, with Miami giving up on him for the lowly return of a fifth-round pick.
Often it feels like we toss around the term “draft bust” too loosely. But a top-10 pick has busted when he doesn’t even finish his rookie contract with the team that drafted him.
As a returner, Ginn was still effective in San Francisco. He scored three times and had two seasons with 800-plus kick-return yards. But as a receiver he was an afterthought, totaling just 33 catches for 384 yards over three seasons.
One night during that period of frustration, he called an old coach. Hazell picked up on the other end.
“I was in the car, and we talked for probably a half-hour to 45 minutes about just everything,” Hazell said. “I could feel how heavy he was. I felt so bad when I hung up the phone because it’s like that’s your son and you can’t do anything to fix it. All I wanted to do was see him have success.”
By the end of his time with the 49ers, Ginn had long shed his label of top-tier prospect. He was a 27-year-old relegated to the role of return specialist who was still searching for his first 1,000-plus-yard season as a receiver.
That search continues, but something almost cosmic took place when Ginn signed with the Panthers in 2013 after leaving the 49ers. The football stars aligned to give him a role, one he lost for a season with the Arizona Cardinals but immediately regained upon his return to Carolina in 2015.
Ginn became what he briefly was in Miami and what he should have been all along: the home run swinger.
Home at Last
When Henning watches Ginn now, he sees a familiar sight.
“The guy that I worked with in 2008 and 2009 is the guy I’m seeing now in 2013 and 2015 in Carolina,” Henning said. “I know what he can do and what you have to avoid doing with him if you don’t want him to get hurt. They’re doing what I think you ought to be doing with him. Some other places he’s been they were probably looking for more of a prototype guy.”
Brian Hartline played alongside Ginn at both Ohio State and for a season with the Dolphins. He said the Ginn we’re watching now hasn’t changed from his days back in Ohio. What's led to more production, then? Time and chances, mostly, with a little bit of persistence for good measure.
“It’s funny to see everything he’s doing now, and it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve seen it since Day 1,’” Hartline said.
“There are guys who have never changed, and they’re always the same guy, producing the same effort, and it comes down to opportunities. I think I’m a guy who falls into that category, and so is Teddy. He’s just one of those guys you have to provide opportunities to, and you’ll see it. It’ll show up.”
In some ways, Ginn is still limited. The routes he’s most comfortable with keep him to the outside, and drops have always been an issue. There are times when he separates with ease, then makes routine catches look incredibly difficult.
Take the ball that went thud during overtime in Week 8 against the Indianapolis Colts. A simple catch should have resulted in a simple touchdown after Ginn had glided by coverage easily, creating about three full yards of separation.
There was no contact from any defender, so all Ginn had to do was wrap his hands around the descending football. This football...
Yet that football’s final resting place wasn’t Ginn’s hands. Instead, it pinballed around before finding the grass below.
Ginn dropped nine catchable balls in 2015, according to PFF, which tied him for the 11th-highest total among all receivers. Like many chronic droppers, though, Ginn’s hands can be a little baffling. For example, in that same Colts game, Newton went back to him just two plays later. The ball was delivered low on an inside route.
Ginn had to do something a little removed from his comfort zone: make a diving catch in traffic while under pressure. No problem...
The Panthers keep going back to Ginn, even during his bouts with buttery hands. They do it because the rewards that come with those targets outnumber the lost chances.
“He’s one of those guys where he’s going to win a lot more than he’ll lose,” Hartline said. “He’s not necessarily the flashiest guy or the most agile guy. But when he turns that corner and puts his foot in the ground, it’s pretty remarkable. I’d challenge anyone to run like he does in the NFL.”
Both parties—team and player—have benefited from the long leash Ginn has been given. The Panthers have a receiver whose career has been revived. And Ginn has felt at home in an accepting environment where he’s not always peering over his shoulder.
“Sometimes when you get in this game, if you make a mistake here or make a mistake there they think, ‘Hey, another guy can do it,’” Ginn told the Associated Press back in October (via USA Today). “Yeah, that’s possible. But you have to let people play a little to truly understand what they are good at. Here, we live with the ups and downs and keep fighting.”
Ginn knows quite a bit about ups and downs. He’s had plenty of them, with opportunities scarce at times, roles he was miscast in and depth-chart burials.
He was given a chance when Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in training camp. And he’s gone from being a specialist to a critical playoff piece and a potential Super Bowl 50 X-factor.
All quotations gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.