Wednesday, September 24, 1997
Carter is king of pain

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ki-Jana Carter is getting a second opinion on his shoulder. The first opinion was ominous.

Ki-Jana Carter

Hard on the heels of his fanciest footwork as a pro football player, the Cincinnati Bengals' running back was diagnosed Tuesday with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. He has a great future ahead of him, as a spectator.

For the second time in three years, the former No. 1 draft choice is expected to miss the bulk of his season because of a severe injury. He is bound today for Birmingham, where he will consult with Alabama's orthopaedic oracle, Dr. James Andrews, and then likely submit to surgery.

"He was blessed," said Bengals General Manager Mike Brown, "with great physical talent and terrible luck."

Ki-Jana Carter has a body Michelangelo might have crafted, had the sculptor made glass his medium instead of marble. His brief flashes of brilliance have fallen between prolonged stretches of brittleness. This is not his fault, merely his curse.

Carter's injury is the latest setback in a Bengals season that began with widespread optimism but has recently followed the familiar detour toward dread. Through three games, the Bengals already trail Jacksonville in the AFC Central and are one fortuitous fumble from winlessness.

Team captain Dan Wilkinson suggests the Bengal defense is, "the laughingstock of the NFL." Reinard Wilson, the No. 1 draft choice, has been so bad he's been benched. Now comes word that quarterback Jeff Blake came home in a police car Monday morning, and that Carter came home with a shredded shoulder.

Somewhere, Dave Shula must be smirking.

Whole lot of holes

The season-ending surge Bruce Coslet supervised last year gave rise to greater expectations for 1997. Yet the Bengals never did fix their fundamental problems on the offensive line, and Coslet thought so little of his defense that he hired Dick LeBeau to install an entirely new system.

Judging by Sunday's showing, some of LeBeau's finer points still elude some of his pupils. To say nothing of Terrell Davis. Old problems persist, and new obstacles arise. The Bengals' road to the playoffs, it turns out, is a treadmill.

This could all change Sunday, of course. Because pro football teams play only once per week, they tend to operate at emotional extremes. The difference between euphoria and despair is sometimes as tenuous as a last-second field goal.

If the Bengals succeed in defeating the New York Jets Sunday, panic will seem premature. If not, consider it a cue for Chicken Little.

An ancient football axiom holds that no team is quite as bad as it looks when it loses. Tuesday, however, it was hard to believe the Bengals were still as strong as they were while getting drubbed in Denver on Sunday.

Star Sunday, patient Tuesday

In his finest hours with the franchise, Carter gained 104 yards rushing at Mile High Stadium - 79 of them on one dazzling sprint - and thus became the first Bengal back to surpass 100 yards in a single game since 1992. By Tuesday, though, Carter's greatest potential was as a patient.

"We don't know absolutely (that shoulder surgery will be required)," Mike Brown said. "But I don't know how you block. I don't know how you take a hit. I don't know how you can sustain the blows. You can run, but you'd better run for a touchdown on every play or it's going to hurt a lot."

Corey Dillon figures to inherit the largest share of Carter's load, and there are less attractive alternatives. Dillon averaged almost 12 yards per carry Sunday - his first chance to carry the ball from scrimmage during the regular season - and his college credentials would suggest more of the same should be expected.

Yet if the Bengals lose Carter, they will also lose the luxury of grooming Dillon gradually. They will clearly lose depth. They will likely become more susceptible to fourth-quarter fatigue.

There are prettier pictures one could paint. Ki-Jana Carter has yet to prove himself in pro football, but his promise was made plain last Sunday. A second opinion is that he is star-crossed.