Ted Ginn has proven he can play WR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith recently relived his first year in the NFL under former Carolina Panthers coach George Seifert as he sat in front of his locker.

"Under Seifert all I did was play special teams and run reverses," the five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver said of the 2001 season. "I was not allowed to play wide receiver. I did not get in to run a pass route. All I did was run a reverse."

Smith easily could have been talking about teammate Ted Ginn, standing a few feet away. Over the past three seasons at San Francisco, Ginn caught 23 passes. He ran 11 times, contributing mostly as a kick returner.

Smith could relate.

"Yeah, I ran a reverse every game," he recalled of his first season. "How do you play receiver if all you're in on is a reverse?"

Smith got his chance to play receiver because the Panthers fired Seifert after the 2001 season. New coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dan Henning let him run routes, and Smith delivered with 54 catches and 872 yards in his second season.

He has since put up numbers that one day could land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Ginn is getting a similar chance in his first year with the Panthers. He already has 11 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns of 40-plus yards after catching only two passes last season at San Francisco.

He's been so effective that Armanti Edwards, a third-round pick in 2010, was released. He's looked so good that the Panthers (1-3) need to find more ways to get him the ball on Sunday at Minnesota (1-3).

"I've been labeled a specialist, but my whole goal is to be a receiver," Ginn said. "I'm getting my opportunity now, showing what people missed out on."

What Ginn also has in common with Smith when Smith first entered the league is blazing speed. It's that speed that made him one of the top return specialists in the NFL, and what contributed to him being pigeon-holed into a role.

It's not uncommon around the league. It's not uncommon with the Panthers.

In 1996, Carolina signed return specialist Rocket Ismail from the Raiders. Ismail caught only 12 passes that season, but two years later when coaches realized his value at stretching the field, he caught 69 passes for 1,024 yards.

"That's one of my guys I look up to," Ginn said.

Ginn has emerged as the No. 3 receiver behind Smith and Brandon LaFell. He fell into the role almost by accident, taking advantage of preseason injuries to Domenik Hixon and Edwards.

One could argue he could be No. 2. Regardless, he has left no doubt he can be a receiver.

"Ted has already kind of shattered the stigma of just being a special teams player," quarterback Cam Newton said. "He gives this offense an added dimension that keeps the defensive backs on their heels no matter who is back there.

"You have to respect his speed, but at the same time his hands have gotten better. He can run a slant. He can catch a hitch. He can catch a comeback."

Newton joked before the season than Ginn was so fast he couldn't overthrow him. So what did he do on his first deep pass to the former Ohio State standout at Buffalo in Week 2? He overthrew him by about five yards.

That won't happen often. On Ginn's 47-yard touchdown catch against the Giants he had to "slow down two or three steps'' to catch a pass Newton thought he'd overthrown.

But an even bigger play came earlier in the game when Ginn caught a first-down over the middle with Smith on the sidelines nursing a hip injury.

"Back in his career he had the tendency to drop things," Newton said of Ginn. "Now he's had that mentality that his hour glass is getting low. We've talked about it a lot."

What has gone unnoticed is Ginn's leadership. He talks a lot to Carolina's young receivers about taking advantage of opportunities like the one he's getting now.

Smith said it's been "remarkable'' watching Ginn share his highs and lows.

"He didn't come in saying, 'Hey I'm going to prove things,'" Smith said. "He said, 'I want to play receiver. I want to be an impact on special teams, but I want to play receiver and I'm going to work my tail off doing that.'

"And he's done that."

It's paying big dividends for a Carolina coaching staff that feels it has gotten a bonus with what Ginn is contributing at receiver.

Coach Ron Rivera can't help but smile when talking about how Ginn can "blow the top off of coverage," which opens up more opportunities for Smith and LaFell.

Again, Smith can relate.

"People are going to have their stigmas about you," he said. "Sports is a great opportunity where you can show people physically that those stigmas are untrue."

Smith did it. Ginn is well on his way.