Hearst worth price to prod Carter along

The Cincinnati Enquirer

As insurance policies go, Garrison Hearst carries a pretty hefty premium.

When the Cincinnati Bengals claimed the Arizona running back off the waiver wire this week, they were also obligated to pick up the payments on his $2.1 million contract. That's a high price to pay for fortifying a fallback position.

It would also appear to be money well spent.

Much as the Bengals have invested in Ki-Jana Carter - both financially and emotionally - the rehabilitating running back remains more of a question mark than an exclamation point. Sixteen months after he was made the first selection in the NFL draft, Carter has yet to run from scrimmage in a regular-season game, or to dazzle his way to pre-season daylight.

Carter may yet be all he once was at Penn State, but he is presently more of a prospect than a proven commodity. Neither is Garrison Hearst an established star - too many fumbles; too few touchdowns - but he is at least a known quantity, a 1,000-yard runner, and unquestionably useful.

''He's a thoroughbred,'' Bengals offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet said. ''He's a tremendous running back. . . . Basically, what this is is a way to increase competition, which is always good for a football team. No. 2, you can't have too many good ones, because sometime during the year you're going to need them.''

Low risk, high potential

Bengals President Mike Brown would have preferred to put his petty cash into a quality cornerback or an accomplished pass rusher, but those players appear on the waiver wire with the frequency of Halley's Comet.

Brown claimed Hearst as the best player available, knowing he could release him should a better one materialize following Sunday's final cutdown. The move involved little risk, and could have several rewards.

Let's say Carter turns out to be tremendous, that he is everything everyone expected before he tore up his knee last August against the Detroit Lions. Let's assume he averages 100 yards per game for three or four games, and renders Hearst redundant.

Solution: The Bengals can release Hearst without incurring any long-term expense. His contract status is strictly week-to-week.

Let's say Carter is most of what he's cracked up to be, but his progress is gradual. Say he continues to be troubled by injuries and tends toward fatigue in the fourth quarter. Say he needs another season to regain his lost steps.

Solution: Hearst could serve several purposes in this scenario. He could play enough to keep Carter fresh, and he might play enough to bind Carter to the Bengals through 2001.

Carter's contract includes a provision that allows him to become a free agent after the 1999 season. To trigger the escape clause, Carter must be on the field this fall for 45 percent of the Bengals' offensive plays.

Long-range planning

If Ki-Jana Carter is not clearly superior to Hearst this fall, it may be in the Bengals' long-term interest to make sure he falls short of that target so as to prolong his obligation to the team.

If Carter is clearly superior to Garrison Hearst, he now has a powerful incentive to prove it.

''I don't know what the reasons really are,'' Carter said. ''I got hurt last year. Maybe they wanted the added security . . . I'm going to do the best I can. If that's not satisfying to them, I guess I'll be a backup or whatever.''

Bengals coach Dave Shula insisted Carter's status had not changed by Hearst's acquisition. Carter remains atop the depth chart, even as he rests his tender ankle during tonight's exhibition against the Lions.

Yet if Carter does not feel challenged by a $2.1 million backup, he probably wouldn't feel an elbow in the eye, either. The handwriting on the wall here couldn't be much clearer in neon. The Bengals are concerned about Carter, and willing to pay to prod him.

''Ki-Jana has given us no indication he can't do the job,'' Shula said. ''But he hasn't done it for a full game or done it for a regular-season game and there are still ifs.''

Not so long ago, the big question about Ki-Jana Carter was ''When?'' Ifs are not an improvement.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 23, 1996.