49ers 'Return' To Glory: The New Crop

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IMay 13, 2010

MIAMI - DECEMBER 06:  Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. #19 of the Miami Dolphins looks to avoid a tackle attempt by Sam Aiken #88 of the New England Patriots at Land Shark Stadium on December 6, 2009 in Miami, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the Patriots 22-21.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The golden age of San Francisco football was one thing, but the blood-red 49ers of 2010 are going to be a different creature entirely.

In the 80's, the 49ers knew this: their offense was a pass-based approach more ahead of its time than the personal computer, and their defense would sting you like angry hornets. Their special teams, however, were never much beyond average for the NFL.

In the 90's, the balance stayed the same. Steve Young and Jerry Rice would run wild on teams, and the defense would beat them senseless, but the special teams would never yield much more than returns to the 25 yard-line and solid punt and kickoff coverage.

Then the dark ages came, but I'm not here to talk about those. This article is about the return of returning.

I looked back on articles from the pasty couple months and stumbled across my pre-draft piece "49ers off season: 'returning' to glory ."  Needless to say, many thoughts and ideas were terribly outdated. Several principles, however, still remain.

The problem addressed is the 49ers return game, epitomized in the fumbled reverse attempt against Seattle. The solutions: trading, drafting, and signing free agents.

The 49ers have now done all three, but with none of the names I mentioned back in February.

I was thinking Sproles, Hester, Jackson, Washington, Spiller, and Best.  I'm now looking at Ted Ginn Jr, Kyle Williams, and Leroy Vann. They traded a fifth-round pick for Ginn, used a sixth-round pick on Williams, and signed Vann as an undrafted rookie free agent.

Ginn, the only one with NFL experience here, hasn't quite lived up to the hype he got as the ninth overall pick in 2007.

If you look at Ginn's highlights from Ohio State, however, you'll know that's asking a lot. He also brings a deep-ball threat with his speed and stature, and had a good return or two with the Dolphins.

Kyle Williams returned kicks at Arizona State, but his offensive abilities overshadow his return game and the 49ers figure to be incorporating him at slot receiver.

The former Sun Devil plays a tough game and could pose problems for defenses paying too much attention to Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Ginn Jr, and of course Frank Gore. It's looking less and less as if Williams will be a factor in the return game, however.

But the guy you might not have heard of here is Leroy Vann. His highlight reel is essentially the opposite of Kyle's; it features return after return after return—culminating in six points a pop.

It's not Vann's speed that make this possible; he (only) runs a 4.59 40. Rather, he secures the ball, reads the gunners, finds seams, makes the cut and keeps his feet moving to stay up when he receives contact—if he receives contact.

Vann, at 5'9" and 180 pounds, has a stature that fits well as a return man specifically, but he'd have a difficult time covering any NFL receiver. He's a compact target who knows where he's going—the end zone. Having faced limited competition at

Vann Comes in with a good shot at making the team, Williams has an inside track, and Ginn Jr. id pretty  much a lock to be on the roster. But as Singletary says, "Iron sharpens iron" so let the return games begin.

It will be exciting if the 49ers return game becomes a factor, as it has been a weak link for them on special teams historically.

Special teams can be a constant, like kicking field goals; or it can be a game-breaker, like running one back. In offense vs. defensive stalemates, it's often the deciding factor.

After all, you need to win two of the following three facets to win a football game: offense, defense, special teams. Win one, you'll probably lose. Win two, you'll probably win. Win three, you'll probably dominate.

We could be looking at a 49ers team that will push you back on defense, run you over on offense, and break your spirit with special teams.

Can you smell that? It's the brash swagger of a team returning to glory—and it smells good.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.