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He's running a comeback route

When Dave Grayson took aim at the San Francisco running back, the entire stadium seemed to brace itself. This was going to be brutal. No way that Grayson was going to miss. After all, Dexter Carter was right there, and Grayson _ a linebacker for the Browns with a 65-pound weight advantage _ coiled as if he intended to turn Carter's helmet until it pointed south. Grayson was going to hit him so hard, it appeared, that Carter's entire family might fall down.

Which is about the point when Carter turned invisible.

One moment, he was there. The next, Grayson was closing his arms around a wisp of air, like Wile E. Coyote trying to grab the Roadrunner in the cartoons, and Carter was skittering to the ground three yards behind him. That was last Sunday, and Grayson probably still is wondering where Carter went.

Oops.

And, for one of the few times all season, it was good that the San Francisco 49ers running game was invisible.

"I think," Carter said, grinning slyly, "that I kind of surprised him."

Put Grayson alongside the rest of those who already have taken their shots at Carter. For a rookie who has played seven games, none of them a defeat, Carter already has faced a career's worth of criticism.

Already, the former Florida State gnatback has been branded bust by the San Francisco area media. A mistake. A blown draft choice.

Oops.

"It was as tough as it could have gotten," Carter said softly, as if to avoid waking the memory. "I got off to a bad start, and they crucified me. It hurt.

"They said I wasn't worthy of being a No.

1 draft pick. They said I wasn't good enough to ever be a prime-time player."

Uh, is it possible for a player to be a Comeback Player of the Year as a rookie?

He is only 23, but he seems much younger than that. His face is teen-age innocent _ you'd swear he could get in movies for half-price _ and in a room full of giants, his 5-foot-9, 170-pound frame is dwarfed by the towel boys.

Little wonder, then, that criticism seemed to knock Carter off his feet the way it did.

At Florida State, Carter was good almost before anyone knew who he was. In high school, anyone who wanted to criticize him had to do it as he streaked down the sideline in Baxley, Ga.

"It was the first time I've ever been criticized like that," Carter said. "I'm sure someone had something bad to say about me in college, but it wasn't like this. And I hadn't even carried the ball from scrimmage."

Remember that this is the 49ers, the best team in football. Aren't rookies supposed to work in slowly? Didn't it take Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig time to establish themselves?

Yes.

Did that matter?

No.

For, if the 49ers have an Achilles' heel so far, it is their running game. The 49ers, good as they are, rank only 23rd in the NFL. Their best player, Craig, struggled even before he was injured and missed the past two weeks. The retooled offensive line struggled.

And there was Carter, the team's No.

1 draft choice, who wasn't doing anything about it.

"It wasn't fair," said tackle Steve Wallace. "People wanted to call him a bust after two games. People were harsh on him."

To some, the wisdom of drafting Carter with the first overall pick was dubious to begin with. His appearance is hardly All-Pro, and a No.

1 draft pick is a high price for a situational player. Besides, some scouts had him rated as a third-rounder, and higher-rated runners such as Reggie Cobb and Anthony Thompson were still available.

Strike one.

When the 49ers drafted Carter, they saw him as their version of Giants jitterbug Dave Meggett. But when Carter arrived in camp, he struggled mightily to field punts. Against the Raiders in his debut, he fumbled one and dropped two kickoffs. Against both Washington and Atlanta, he dropped kickoffs.

Strike two.

And, as the 49ers' running game looked extremely un-championlike in the early games, Carter stood and watched. That was nostalgic, because the one thing the 49ers could not do in the '80s was draft running backs (remember first-round fizzles Earl Cooper and Terrence Flagler?)

Strike three.

"Carter's Debut a Blowout" read the Aug. 13 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Carter's Trailing in Early Returns" read the Sept. 25 headline in the San Jose Mercury News. "Top Pick Carter Slow to Catch On" said the Sept. 30 headline in the San Francisco Examiner.

The criticism Carter didn't read, others told him about. And it bothered him to the point where, normally an open, friendly sort, he briefly considered not talking to the press anymore.

"The media was hard on me, and the fans were hard on me," Carter said. "I let it affect me. My confidence was shaken. It felt like you'd feel if you got fired from your job.

"No one likes criticism. It gets to you. It has you second-guessing yourself. Not your ability, because I've proven time and time again that I can play. But it makes you wonder how much better you can play."

Carter finally had a chance to show how well he could play against Pittsburgh, and he darted his way to a 90-yard afternoon. Then he added 58 against the Browns last Sunday.

"We had good feelings about Dexter before," said coach George Seifert, "but the last two weeks have helped his confidence and the team's confidence. As far as a scrimmage back, nobody really knew for sure until we watched him in the Pittsburgh game."

No, two games didn't make Carter a star, any more than five made him a bust, and it didn't even run the critic out of all Carter's observers. But it did bring him back at least to even, where he can prove himself.

Which is sort of like the 49ers running game.

They are 7-0, and two-time champions, which makes them all but invulnerable to criticism. Still, the 49ers running game is spinning its wheels.

This time last year, they were averaging 119.6 yards per game and 4.1 per rush. This year, that's down to 88 yards per game and 3.2 per rush. Two years ago, they averaged 187.9 per game and 5.2 per rush the first seven games.

So, don't they eventually have to beat someone running the ball?

"I would think not," said offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren. "We have to run our offense and our offensive scheme, which has been to throw the ball and set up the run."

Carter's past two weeks have helped. He has hit enough holes, gained enough yards, for the 49ers to believe they have the latest entry in the league's trend toward successful small backs.

"You're talking about a back who is talented, explosive, quick and brave," said tackle Bubba Paris. "I say brave because of his size. Most people his size wouldn't have the courage to take it up the middle the way he does."

But ask Carter about his size, and he frowns the frown of a man twice as big. "I don't even like to talk about size," he said. "Everyone tries to compare me to Meggett and (Cleveland's) Eric Metcalf, and there are some similarities. But there also are some differences. If you're going to compare me to anyone, why not Tony Dorsett?"

Whoa. Even after two games, Carter is a long way from that.

"I'm just getting started," he admitted. "I haven't even had a run of longer than 15 yards yet. But I think the other players have more confidence in me now."

And the critics?

"They judge you on your last carry," he said. "If I play another bad game, who knows what's going to happen? I'm sure I haven't played my last bad game."

Carter smiled.

"I haven't played my last good one, either."

TOP ROOKIES

Here are the top rookie running backs so far this season:

Athlete, team Carries Yards

Johnny Johnson, Phoenix 139 605

Emmitt Smith, Dallas 102 373

Steve Broussard, Atlanta 83 368

Blair Thomas, N.Y. Jets 71 326

Harold Greene, Cincinnati 69 321

Reggie Cobb, Tampa Bay 88 291

Dexter Carter, San Fran. 49 179

Leroy Hoard, Cleveland 53 149

Rodney Hampton, N.Y. Giants 22 60

Darrell Thompson, Green Bay 20 56

Anthony Thomson, Phoenix 24 55

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