Losing to the team who had the second worst record in the NFL a year ago causes people to get antsy. That’s when blaming occurs, and that leads to observers calling out for potential replacements. Replace Colin Kaepernick with Alex Smith. Replace David Akers with Nate Kaeding. Replace Greg Roman with… actually there’s only one writer around here with a crush on the late Bill Walsh big enough to write anything that asinine.

One player who also received some scrutiny after Sunday’s loss was Ted Ginn, who made a comically bad attempt to recover Kaepernick’s errant pitch near the 49ers’ own goal-line. I pinned most of the blame for that play on Kaepernick because he flung the ball wildly with his left hand in an apparent moment of panic, but Ginn’s method of fumble recovery was as bad as it gets.

1. Ginn has a five-yard head start on Janoris Jenkins. Both take similar angles on the ball:

2. As Jenkins closes in, Ginn could dive on the ball at this point:

3. Instead, Ginn slows down for some reason. Jenkins continues sprinting and plans a dive:

4. Ginn gets greedy/selfish at this point, figuring if he falls on the ball the play goes for negative yardage. So he changes his angle so he can scoop it up and possibly make a play. Jenkins starts his dive:

5. At this point, Ginn looks like he’s moving in slow motion as the ball kicks sideways, just out of his reach. Jenkins, who unlike Ginn never changed his pursuit angle, is now almost as close to the ball as Ginn and moving about 10x as fast:

6. Jenkins takes out Ginn’s right arm with his helmet, making it close to impossible for Ginn to pick up the ball (let alone scoop it up, run and become a hero):

7. Ginn’s decision to change angles means that Jenkins’ dive takes him out from the side…

8. Which sends Ginn sprawling and gives Jenkins an easy path to the end zone.

The pitch play was brought about by terrible decision-making by everyone, from Greg Roman on down. However, it was Ginn changing his angle on the ball that ultimately led to “the nightmare scenario,” as Jim Harbaugh described it.

However, that was just one game in the middle of the regular season. The frightening thing is the 49ers are now forced to count on Ginn to avoid screwups like the play shown above and contribute both as a returner and a receiver the rest of the way. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Kyle Williams was the 49ers’ best deep threat before he and Kendall Hunter left the game (and the 2012 season) on the same play, and his absence was felt in St. Louis as the 49ers were unable to stretch the field.
  • Williams was also the No. 2 punt and kick returner behind Ginn, who muffed a punt in the Saints game and was quickly removed, although Jim Harbaugh said it was because Ginn had injured his hand or wrist. Ginn has three fumbles this season, two recovered by San Francisco.
  • Mario Manningham, the 49ers’ No. 2 WR, didn’t practice yesterday due to a shoulder injury.
  • Ginn missed the NFC Championship Game and the first three games of the 2012 season. Injuries can happen to any player in the NFL, but Ginn has been particularly fragile over the last 12 months.

The 49ers have no choice but to hope Ginn can handle serving as the main returner and the No. 4 receiver (No. 3 if Manningham can’t go). LaMichael James is currently listed as the backup punt and kick returner on the depth chart. We haven’t seen A.J. Jenkins yet, which means he probably isn’t ready. It’s not like San Francisco holds rookies back in their first year as a rule; just look at their 2011 draft class and you’ll see four players who were vital contributors from the start last season.

Lack of depth at receiver crushed the 49ers in the game that mattered most last season, as Brett Swain was counted on to make plays in the NFC Championship Game. After an off-season where San Francisco added Manningham, Randy Moss and Jenkins, plus stronger versions of Michael Crabtree and Williams, the position didn’t look to be a problem in 2012. Now the 49ers have to hope Ginn can remain healthy and start making better decisions than we saw in St. Louis, because the 49ers are running out of potential replacements.