As a franchise, the Bengals are currently going through one of their most successful periods ever.
However, things haven't always been this good in the Queen City. Long time Bengals fans will remember the 'dark days' before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati, when the team didn't post a single winning season. They were plagued by numerous draft busts and players with unfulfilled potential.
In a recent list of the top 25 players with unfulfilled potential, ESPN listed two former Bengals, both from the 'dark days'.
Since 2011, the Bengals haven't posted a single losing season and haven't missed the playoffs once. Going all the way back to the beginning of Marvin Lewis' tenure in 2003, we only find three losing seasons and six instances of missing the playoffs.
Before he arrived in Cincinnati, they only managed a single non-losing season(8-8) from 1992-2002. A lot of that had to do with players who were high draft picks and really should have been pretty good, but never managed to make an impact in the NFL for one reason or another.
It says something about how bad the Bengals were throughout the decade that two players from the same team and same time period appear on a list of 25 players throughout the entire history of the country, and all major sports, that did not live up to their potential. In this case, those two players were Akili Smith and Ki-Jana Carter, both of whom set the Bengals back a few years due to the lofty nature of their draft position and the lowly nature of their subsequent careers.
Ranked at No. 23, Carter's story is one of the sadder ones on this list.
An explosive running back, Carter rushed for 1,539 yards and 23 touchdowns for Penn State in 1994 and finished second in the Heisman voting. He averaged 7.16 yards per carry during his college career. The Cincinnati Bengals traded up from the fifth spot to make him the No. 1 pick in 1995.
Things weren't looking great for the Bengals before the 1995 draft. They needed someone to come in and replace the production of the electrifying James Brooks, who was pretty much the greatest player ever brought in to the Bengals via trade. Unfortunately, by 1992, Brooks had lost a step and moved on to spend time with the Browns then Buccaneers before calling it a career by the end of the year.
Carter was supposed to be the next big thing in Cincinnati. The David Klingler experiment worked so poorly that the Bengals were in prime position to make a move for the prolific Penn State running back that everyone was talking about. That's exactly what they did, but the move backfired.
Carter tore the ACL in his left knee in his first preseason game and missed the 1995 season. He appeared in all 16 games in 1996, but he was never the same player. Injuries would plague him for the rest of his career, too. Carter totaled fewer rushing yards (1,144) and touchdowns (20) during an NFL career that included parts of seven seasons than he did in his final year at Penn State.
It can sometimes be seen as a bit harsh to call Carter a bust, due to the fact that it's not really his fault that he totaled his knee. The Bengals did keep him around for the entirety of his five-year rookie contract, but they drafted Corey Dillon to replace him in 1997 and Carter was out by 1999.
There wasn't a single season that he played with the team where he didn't suffer from some sort of serious injury. Who knows what the Jeff Blake era would have looked like with a healthy and productive Ki-Jana Carter?
You knew this one was coming. Often considered one of the biggest busts not only in Bengals history, but in NFL history, Smith was the kind of player that makes you shake your head at all of the unfulfilled potential for success.
Smith threw 32 touchdown passes during his senior year at Oregon, raising his stock to the point that the Bengals made him the No. 3 pick in the 1999 draft. "A lot of people had him No. 1 on their boards," Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said at the time. "I'm very pleased."
It might seem like an extremely risky choice to take a player that high who only had 11 starts in college, but the quarterback-desperate Bengals were ready to try anything. As you probably know, the results were anything but encouraging.
Smith missed his initial training camp because of a contract holdout, never jelled with the Bengals' offense and was benched in 2000. "I'm kind of baffled that they drafted me," he said, echoing the thoughts of many Bengals fans. Smith's NFL career ended after four seasons and a 3-14 record as a starter, and he later flopped in NFL Europe and the CFL, as well.
I'm still baffled as to what the logic in this pick was. The result was so awful that Bruce Coslet resigned in disgust three games into the 2000 season. Smith was benched later in that season, but the damage was done. His career was primarily derailed by a lack of focus on learning the playbook or on improving himself as a player, so it's hard to feel bad for the guy when you compare him to someone like Ki-Jana Carter, whose career was completely ruined by things he couldn't control.
The Bengals wound up 4-12 after Coslet left, winning two games with and two without Smith under center. They also wound up with the No. 4 pick in the NFL draft, resulting in Justin Smith joining the team. That's probably the most positive thing that ever came out of Akili Smith's career with the Bengals.