Hearst honored as NFC's best

<P>Garrison Hearst is just about all the way back, and people are taking notice. So many noticed this past week, in fact, that the 49ers' starting tailback has been named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance last Sunday in San Francisco's 40-21 victory at Indianapolis. </P>

Hearst had only 12 carries against the Colts, but he turned those opportunities into 106 yards rushing, including impressive touchdown bursts of 28 and 43 yards. On each of those runs, Hearst displayed the explosiveness and darting breakaway ability that made him a Pro Bowl player in 1998 before a career-threatening ankle injury wiped out his 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Hearst became the second San Francisco player in three weeks to earn the award, which was announced Wednesday. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was honored two weeks ago for his performance in the Niners' 28-27 win over New Orleans. This is the third time in his career Hearst has earned the award. He also won it once in 1997 and once in 1998.

"It means something big-time for a player," Hearst said. Hearst has been a big-time player for the Niners since the third game of the season. But he came on particularly strong during November, when he strung together rushing performances of 82, 145, 92 and 106 yards. He averaged 6.3 yards a carry during the month while climbing to fourth in the NFC in rushing with 776 yards on 147 carries.

"It's not unusual for a back to have 106 yards or to have two touchdowns in a game," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "I'm sure part of the award ... whoever made the decision felt that what he's doing the last three or four games, he's been terrific. So, it's probably just an award that this guy is really doing something special." Hearst's first touchdown gave the Niners a 17-14 lead and his second put the finishing touches on San Francisco's most lopsided win of the season with 5:52 remaining. They were his first rushing touchdowns since 1998.

"That's the only way I know how to play, man," Hearst said. "I didn't come back to try not to be good. When I left, I felt like I was doing some good things. And I felt like when I got back, I wanted to do the same thing." Needless to say, Hearst is doing just that.

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