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Ki-Jana Carter: What Might Have Been

Ki-Jana Carter #32, Running Back for the Cincinnati Bengals during the American Football Conference West game against the San Diego Chargers on 8 September 1996 at the Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California, United States. The Chargers won the game 27 - 14. (Photo by J.D. Cuban/Allsport/Getty Images)
Ki-Jana Carter #32, Running Back for the Cincinnati Bengals during the American Football Conference West game against the San Diego Chargers on 8 September 1996 at the Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California, United States. The Chargers won the game 27 - 14. (Photo by J.D. Cuban/Allsport/Getty Images) /
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There are many what ifs in the Cincinnati Bengals “lost decade” of the 90s. Ki-Jana Carter is one of the biggest.

The Bengals were coming off their third 13 loss season in four years heading into the 1995 NFL Draft. However, when they traded up four spots to make Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter the top overall pick. There was reason for optimism.

Carter was one of those rare prospects that simply looked better than everybody else on a college football field. Those are the kind that rarely miss in the NFL. The 83-yard touchdown run in the 1995 Rose Bowl drives this point home. You can watch it below thanks to the vslice02 YouTube channel. He posted over 2500 total rushing yards as well as 30 total rushing touchdowns in his last two years at Penn State.

However, Carter tore his ACL in his first preseason game. He was never anywhere close to the same player again and would bounce around the league as a journeyman role player in a career that wrapped up after the 2004 season.

If Carter had stayed healthy, he clearly had all the tools to be one of the greats and not just another player. His name always pops up on draft “bust” lists this time of year. That is not entirely fair. Unfortunately, fate never allowed us to find out what Carter could really do at the NFL level.

Carter’s individual what ifs are one thing, but the what ifs for the franchise as a whole are another. The Bengals posted a few respectable seasons in the middle of the “lost decade.” Cincinnati reached .500 in 1996 as well as posting seven wins in 1995 and 1997. Carter started less than half of the games in that three-year span. The offense posted respectable numbers led by quarterback Jeff Blake and others, but was always missing something to make it elite. Thus, the Bengals narrowly missed out on the playoffs all three years.

Perhaps the player in the video above is what was missing. We will never know. That player never made it to the NFL. Still, it is reasonable to wonder whether Cincinnati’s ongoing playoff victory drought starts a few years later at the very least with a healthy Carter.

Want to read more about Cincinnati’s offseason? Be sure to check out all of our Bengals coverage on Stripe Hype!

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