By GEOFF HOBSON
The question surfaces every June 1.
Will the Bengals finally release injury-riddled running back Ki-Jana Carter to get rid of a pricey backup who has played in 35 games during five NFL seasons? Wide receiver Carl Pickens still looks to be the leading candidate to get lopped before 4 p.m. Thursday, but Carter said today he would understand if he gets the call before or after Thursday as he recovers from yet another knee surgery.
By the end of business today, the Bengals had yet to get a definitive word from the NFL on the status of a dispute involving Pickens and the franchise player tag. If Pickens and his $2.8 million salary cap hit can't get waived by 4 p.m. Thursday, Carter becomes a leading candidate because if they cut him it counts $2 million against this year's salary cap.
They can't cut both Pickens and Carter Thursday because that would count a whopping $4.8 million against the cap for a team that historically likes to spread out cap hits evenly over the years. Because of running back Corey Dillon's threat to hold out the first 10 games, the Bengals would ideally like to keep Carter around for insurance even though today's physical in Cincinnati revealed his dislocated kneecap is still six to eight weeks away from getting cleared for practice.
"We've got tonight and tomorrow to discuss what we're going to do," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "We haven't decided what we're going to do yet with Ki-Jana. He looks to be on schedule, but he's still a couple of months away from playing."
Carter doesn't want to go, but he said today before heading to the exam that he understands business. Business can also be transacted after June 1 if such veteran backs as Michael Basnight, Sedric Shaw and Brandon Bennett, as well as fourth-round pick Curtis Keaton, emerge. Carter counts $1 million each in 2000 and 2001 if he's cut after June 1.
Basnight, a second-year college free agent from North Carolina A&T who gained 86 yards on 10 carries in last season's finale in Jacksonville, thinks he's ready to help: "If I can get in on 60 percent of the plays, yeah, I think I can get 1,000 yards."
"I know that it could always come back to a financial thing," Carter said. "I'm not going to hold any grudges. Mike Brown has done a lot for me and my family and me as a person. I'm grateful for that. I would like to be here. Hopefully I'll have a good training camp and I win back the confidence of the coaches, Mike Brown and my teammates."
After missing his rookie season when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament on his third pre-season carry, Carter hasn't made it out of the last two Septembers. He broke his hand in four different places in the 1998 opener, and then last year dislocated his kneecap while trying to reverse field to make a tackle following an interception in the season's third game.
He was cleared this past January and then, in more cruel fashion, the same kneecap slid out of place against last month during an agility drill. He had arthroscopic surgery April 24 and reports he can crank it up pretty good on the bike and hopes to get cleared by Dr. James Andrews in next week's checkup in Birmingham, Ala., to step it up on the Stairmaster.
Bengals trainer Paul Sparling said there's an outside chance that Carter could be ready for the July 21 start of training camp. Carter thinks he could definitely suit up midway through camp. Sparling called Carter's progress "ordinary," after doctors found some fluid in the joints.
Carter, 26, and his sad story are now locked in Bengal lore. How the 1995 NFL Draft's No. 1 pick has more injured reserve stints (3) than 100-yard games (1) in his career. But he's saying all the right things after leaving Cincinnati last September, furious with the team for shelving him for the rest of the season when he thought he could play at least in the last five games. Worse was finding out he was put on injured reserve by reading the ESPN scroll of news.
"You forgive but don't forget," Carter said. "I at least wanted to get a chance to show I could still play." But Carter dismisses the notion of a new location reviving his career.
"The last couple of years I felt that way," Carter said. "But that's stuff you think about when you're younger. Now that you're more mature, it's not always that way. I really owe Mike Brown a lot. He invested a lot of money in me and I'd like to pay some of that back. Bad things happened. Nature took its course. It wasn't anything he did. They seem to be making a lot of changes for the better. Going into the new stadium, hopefully that will bring a lot of excitement."
Carter says he simply can't worry about when or if the cut will come.
"There's no reason to look back," he said. "All I can do is get my leg ready and get ready to have a great season."