The 1990s were a lost decade for myriad reasons for the Bengals, but the biggest “what if” happened with Ki-Jana Carter, who the Bengals traded up to the No. 1 spot in 1995 to draft out of Penn State.
“We thought he was the special player that would impact our team,” said Bengals owner and president Mike Brown.
Carter made an instant impression on the club in his first training camp, too, giving many in and around the franchise hope he could be the franchise player the club could build around.
“One of the better running backs I ever coached was James Brooks and we could do all kind of things with James,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet. “He could run sweeps, he could run inside, we could flank him out and be a wide receiver, and Ki-Jana could do all that and he was bigger and stronger and maybe as fast – Brooks was really fast – but he was the type of triple-threat weapon. He couldn’t punt (laughs). But he could do about everything else.
“He was so good. God, he was good.”
“When he ran it was like he was gliding a little bit,” said Bengals tight end Tony McGee. “It was almost like he wasn’t touching the ground. That was something. For a guy to be that big, he was pretty big – he was 220, 225 I believe – to be that big and to just kind of move like that, that was pretty impressive.
“But the thing also, he was a guy that had straight on speed, that top end, north-south speed, and wasn’t going to be a guy – and coming out of Penn State I remember he averaged eight yards a carry watching that Rose Bowl and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? How do you average eight yards a carry?’ ”
Only no one else got to see it. In his first preseason game, Carter blew out his knee on the turf in the Pontiac Silverdome. He missed all of his rookie season, and though he would come back to play four years for the Bengals, he suffered other injuries and would never again possess the physical attributes that made him so special.
“It’s a crying shame. I can still remember the play in the preseason when he blew it up. God,” Coslet said. “Ki-Jana was OK. He was good, but he wasn’t what he was gonna be. He was serviceable, did some good things. But we’ll never know how good he would’ve been. We’ll never know. It was almost a tragedy.”