Friday, August 20, 2004

FOXBORO, Mass. — For six years, Corey Dillon was the diamond in the coal mine that passed for the NFL in Cincinnati.

While the Bengals limped to a 26-70 record, the running back raced for more than 1,200 yards a season and accounted for three of the Bengals five Pro Bowl selections. Dillon also produced two of the eight most productive games ever, including a then-record 287 yards on 22 carries against Denver on Oct.22, 2000.

But last year as the Bengals were rousing themselves for a .500 season under first-year coach Marvin Lewis, Dillon headed in the wrong direction. He was seriously hurt for the first time, had a pregame fender bender after which Lewis told him to not to come to work and wound up with just 541 yards while being usurped by former benchwarmer Rudi Johnson.

After the season, Dillon — adding to his reputation for selfishness — demanded out, and Cincinnati accommodated him with a trade to New England for a second-round draft choice. Suddenly, he’s with a team that has won two Super Bowls in the past three seasons.

“People said things about me, but they don’t understand because they weren’t in my shoes, ” Dillon said. “You play there for seven years and only win 30-some games, how would you feel? It wasn’t personal against anybody. I’m a competitor with a deep thirst for winning. I’ve been screaming for years that I want an opportunity to chase down a Super Bowl. So this is the best place I could be. I’m surrounded by guys who know how to win.”

The only thing the Patriots couldn’t do last year was run the ball. They ranked in the top half of the NFL in passing, rush defense and pass defense but were 27th in rushing as Antowain Smith, a standout during the 2001 championship season, sank to 642 yards.

Enter the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Dillon who, according to tight end Christian Fauria, “needs just a little crease and he’s gone.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised Dillon’s production, power and blocking and said he “brings qualities … that are a little different than our other backs.”

Qualities? Make that quality. Dillon averaged 1,253 yards for those first six seasons, and it has been nine years since a Patriot reached that figure. Dillon averages 4.3 yards a carry. The last New England rushing leader to do so was Craig James in 1985.

“You saw what Corey did for Cincinnati year in and year out,” guard Joe Andruzzi said. “Hopefully, he can do the same for us.”

Not that the Patriots can’t win without Dillon. They’ve already done so twice.

“It’s like a burden off of me,” Dillon said. “The pressure is off me to go out there and be Superman, [which] I’ve been doing for a long time. I’m happy to sit back and … just focus on running the ball and helping the team win. They won Super Bowls without me, so I don’t know about being the missing piece. I’m just another good player added to a group of great players.”

As for the negative baggage Dillon accumulated in Cincinnati, that better be left behind. Winning two titles with a bunch of role players has made New England’s locker room a conformist zone. If you don’t fit in, they’ll let you know.

“Stuff might have happened in Cincinnati — no one knows for sure — but that’s in the past,” Andruzzi said. “We have a good core of guys who all want one thing. That’s what guys are made of around here, and Corey is going to be one of those guys. He has been a great guy since he stepped foot in here. He has been a hard worker. He’s been here day in and day out trying to get everything down and do his best.”

Dillon appreciated that he “didn’t have to come in like this was church and testify,” especially because he doesn’t understand how the best back in Bengals history got such a bad rap. But although Dillon sees this as a fresh start, he’s also eager for next Saturday’s preseason game in Cincinnati and the real contest on Dec.12 in Foxboro. His face lit up and he reeled off the date of the latter game before the question was fully asked.

“I feel good,” Dillon said. “This is a rebirth for me. I’m on a clean sheet of paper. It doesn’t matter what you did where you were before. It matters what you do here. They don’t care [about Cincinnati]. They know I can play, and I’m a hard worker. They’ve welcomed me with open arms.”

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