BY GEOFF HOBSON
Running back Ki-Jana Carter's Bengal career that began in the spotlight of the NFL's No. 1 draft pick ended today in the obscurity of the waiver wire. The Bengals released the star-crossed Carter when they couldn't get definitive word from the NFL regarding a grievance and held off waiving disgruntled wide receiver Carl Pickens.
While one No. 1 pick went out the door, the newest one, Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick, looks to be on the threshold of joining the club. Warrick's agents, Norm Nixon and Jim Gould, and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn are optimistic a deal can get done within a week.
"I've been involved in negotiating for 20 years," said the Cincinnati-based Gould. "I've never been more optimistic about a relationship and about this deal getting done."
The sides emerged from a five-and-a-half hour session at about 6:30 p.m. The status of the man Warrick is to replace Pickens isn't as certain as it seemed to be Wednesday night. The Bengals thought a settlement had been reached between the NFL and the NFL Players Association in which the NFLPA would drop its grievance against the club and allow the Bengals to retain their franchise player designation when Pickens is released. But the club couldn't confirm the agreement with officials late today.
"If we can get the union to button down the understanding we believe has been made, then we'll release Carl," Brown said. "But until then, we'll hold off. If it falls through, we'll be reluctant to let him go unless we get the deal we thought was made."
With Carter jettisoned instead of Pickens before today's 4 p.m. deadline, the Bengals pick up about an extra $1 million under the salary cap to pursue Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon or a veteran free agent such as Giants cornerback Phillippi Sparks.
Pickens has lobbied for months to get out of Cincinnati, going as far as ripping management and coach Bruce Coslet. Steve Zucker, his agent, still thinks a release, "is going to happen. There's just been a little delay." It could happen as soon as early next week, when the NFLPA is reportedly to meet with league officials about an overall settlement in which the Pickens matter is a small part.
The move ends Carter's painful career in Cincinnati with the lone highlight his then-rookie record $7.125 million signing bonus in 1995. But five years, 35 games, 747 yards and three stints on injured reserve later, the bonus finally became manageable enough for the Bengals to take a $2 million cap hit for this year.
"I don't think I can still be a factor in this league. I know I can still be a factor in this league," Carter said. "I know the coaches had confidence in me when I was able to play for two of my five years. It's just one play here, one play there, I was out for the season. It's bad luck.
"It feels strange," Carter said. "I'm on the other side of the table now. You always see guys getting cut and now I'm one of them. I don't thiink teams are going to come after me now, but I'm looking to get my knee better and go help a team come training camp."
Carter continued to exhibit the grace under pressure he has displayed since his first major pro setback, a devastating knee injury against the Lions in Detroit nearly five years ago.
"Compared to what happens in life, this is a little thing to get over," Carter said. "I'm grateful for how the Bengals treated me. I've got to thank (Bengals President) Mike Brown for taking care of me. They could have cut me way before this. They hung with me. I've got to thank the fans for the support they gave me. Maybe things happen for a reason. We just don't know what it is yet."
After finishing runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting following his school-record nine 100-yard games at Penn State, Carter tore his anterior cruciate ligament on his third carry of the pre-season. It set the tone for a career in which he had just one 100-yard game and lost his starting job to Garrison Hearst and then Dillon.
"It's a sad end to a sad story," said Leigh Steinberg, Carter's agent. "It just goes to show you how injury can change the course of things and what a violent game football is. The Bengals have stuck with Ki-Jana through a lot bad times. We hope this helps them with their salary cap because we know this hasn't been easy for them either."
The last two seasons were especially tough. Carter broke his hand in four places while bracing a fall out of bounds during the 1998 opener and was lost for the year. Then he dislocated his kneecap in the third game of last season while reversing field to make a tackle following an interception.
He was cleared back in January, but then suffered a similar injury in April while doing agility drills. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery six weeks ago, Carter learned at Wednesday's exam that he's six to eight weeks from returning to practice.
Since Carter's injury is categorized as a "non-football injury," the Bengals aren't responsible for his $1.7 million salary for this season and Steinberg indicated Carter won't contest it. He figures Carter won't get calls from other teams until around training camp and his health is more certain.
"It's a shame. I love Ki-Jana. He's a great kid," Coslet said. "But his problem is durability. After hearing the reports from our doctors and the uncertainty of it, we have to go with other guys."
Carter's best moments as a pro came in goal-line situations. In 1996 and 1997, he scored 14 rushing touchdowns. Coslet has always wondered if the Bengals wouldn't have had as many red-zone problems the last two seasons if they had Carter's ability to get around the corner.
"He was the only back we felt had the kind of speed to get to the outside," Coslet said. "But he wasn't only a running back. He was a good pass receiver. We could use him on third down, but if you can't stay on the field. . ."
The Bengals worked on the "Jet," package during the '98 and '99 offseasons in which the coaches had Dillon and Carter in the same backfield. But it never got off the ground because of Carter's injuries.
Now with Dillon threatening to sit out the first 10 games, the Bengals are preparing for life without Dillon and Carter. Coslet is looking at "back by committee," with Michael Basnight, Sedrick Shaw and Brandon Bennett. Bennett (243 career rushing yards) missed last season with an ACL injury, Basnight (308) is in his second season, and Shaw (258) didn't play last year until the finale.
"That's OK," said Coslet as he looks at a young receiving corps headed by Warrick. "We can go to a legitimate three-receiver set at any time during a game." But Coslet says the running back situation won't dictate heavily using three wides. He still wants to strike a balance between packages with multi tight ends and two backs.
There is also the promise of fourth-round draft pick Curtis Keaton, a running back out of James Madison. But as Coslet said, "We like him, but I don't know anything about him."
Yet Keaton knows plenty about Carter, the man he could be replacing. Keaton, out of James Madison, grew up in Carters hometown of Columbus, Ohio. In fact, Keaton grew up with a poster of Carter on his wall.
"He was a playmaker at Penn State," Keaton said. "He would get three, four yards consistently, and then break one. Any back would want to look at that as a model. I wish him the best whether it's here or some place else."
Keaton remembered when he was in junior high and he saw Carter at a Columbus pool. Carter was already a prep and college legend and Keaton went up to him and introduced himself. He did the same thing in the Bengals locker room Wednesday and brought up the encounter at the pool. Carter said he remembered.
Which is how the Bengals will remember Carter. A good guy here for a brief visit.