4-20-04, 4:10 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
In the end, it was all very polite.
Corey Dillon thanked the Bengals for trading him to the Super Bowl champion Patriots. The Bengals thanked their stars for getting a second-round draft pick. And Rudi Johnson playfully challenged his predecessor in an AFC championship game.
"I don't care who we play, as long as we get there," said Johnson, officially "The Man," after Monday's trade. "And I know we can do it. We've got one of the youngest offenses in the NFL with Carson (Palmer), me, Chad (Johnson), Peter (Warrick). We're going to be here for awhile."
If the 24-year-old Johnson thinks he's in a great situation, so does the 29-year-old Dillon. Although he appeared miffed last year that Johnson's work load eclipsed his during last season, Dillon insisted Monday night that he'll take a backseat in Foxboro.
"I don't know of one running back in the NFL who faced eight-man fronts every year for seven years," said Dillon from his Los Angeles-area home. "I think this is the best possible situation for me because of all the weapons on offense. Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the game, there is a great corps of receivers, a great offensive line. It's a pick your poison type of thing."
Dillon was supposed to be the great poison in the Bengals' locker room this year if he returned after his antics to engineer a trade. He was referred to privately in some quarters of Paul Brown Stadium as the egomaniac "Leon," of TV commercial fame. But while his ex-teammates downplayed his impact in their locker room Monday, Dillon felt his character has been vindicated by Patriots coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli on a recommendation from the Bengals.
"We went from 2-14 to 8-8, so I don't know how he could have been a problem last year," said Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. "We had a lot of guys who were focused and I'm anxious to see what happens in the second year of the (Marvin Lewis) regime."
Dillon raised eyebrows throughout his career with some outrageous moves and even more outrageous quotes that made many question his commitment to a team concept. But he felt he eased the Pats' fears when he flew into Hartford, Conn., Saturday to meet with Belichick and Pioli, two guys who have put a premium on getting players with un-Dillon baggage.
"It was a very long conversation. Maybe five hours," Dillon said. "They did their research. They found out I wasn't a bad guy and they just wanted to reassure themselves by meeting me. I know how he chooses players. Fitting into their team system is very valuable. They don't have the patience and the time for someone who doesn't fit their profile. It's not a big issue. The whole issue in Cincinnati was my frustration of not winning. You're not going to hear a peep out of Corey Dillon in New England."
But Dillon knows the Bengals pocketed some of their resentment to get the deal done. Dillon gave something to move. He said he's getting less than his $3.3 million salary this year to fit under the Pats' salary cap, but easy-to-reach incentives could make it more than that. The Pats also have him for the $3.9 million in 2005, but Dillon said that could be extended next year so that he retires in New England.
"They had the power to send me to the depths of hell," Dillon said of the Bengals. "They could have told the Patriots I was a butthead. But they didn't. I think that shows they had respect for what I did for them. I have a lot of love for Mike Brown, Troy Blackburn, Katie Blackburn, Coach Lewis. It was my first pro organization. I love a lot of people there. It was just time to move on."
In the end, Dillon admits it was the constant losing that got him. It didn't surprise Rudi Johnson.
"He was talking about that even before last year," Johnson said. "I think he just couldn't see much in his future and he wanted to move on. I think he could have come back if he came back with a positive attitude,"
But nobody thought he could, particularly Lewis, who politely didn't say much of anything since the end of the season. Linebacker Brian Simmons, who played with Dillon for six years, just didn't think his attitude was a factor last year in the locker room.
"I can't see (the locker room) improving. I didn't think anything was wrong with it," Simmons said. "One guy can't affect everybody. When you're losing, a lot is magnified. It increases the negativity. I think we got over the hump on that stuff last year. It's like Willie said, we don't need guys going back and forth in the media."
Anderson is the guy that Dillon called "a bum," on "The Best Damn Sports Show," last month. Dillon was responding to Anderson saying Dillon should walk after the last game as Anderson watched Dillon throw his uniform into the stands. But both shrugged about it Monday night.
"Willie and I could have a conversation right now," Dillon said. "The bottom line is that Willie and I were teammates for seven years. I know people say things they don't mean when they're frustrated. I wish Willie and Coach Lewis the best of everything."
Anderson tried to deflect Dillon's tirade then and now.
"I could have still had him for a teammate," Anderson said. "Like I've always said, there were a lot of years blocking for him was the only thing that, by the end of the year, really mattered. (Center) Richie Braham and I are the only guys who have been there for every yard he's got. We used to have a real good business relationship. He was my guy. We used to be pretty close. I think he's going to really help the Patriots. Players nowadays keep themselves in shape and play beyond their years and Corey has always kept himself in good condition. I'm happy for him."
Johnson said the same thing.
"The one thing I saw when I got here is that he practiced hard every practice," Johnson said. "He went hard all the time. He couldn't practice much last year because of the (torn groin), and that was obviously something to do with what happened. Football is about being able to prepare yourself during the week."
Johnson laughed when told he should have given Dillon a throwback Curtis Martin Patriots' jersey. It was Johnson who gave Dillon the Bo Jackson Raiders' jersey he wore on "The Best Damn Sports Show."
"I wish him the best. I'm going to follow him," Johnson said. "I'm surprised it's the Patriots. I thought it was going to be the Raiders. But they're getting a good player. I think he's got a lot left."
Dillon laughed at the irony, but wasn't too harsh on the old PBS field. Dillon blamed the grass for his slip that ripped his groin in Week Three of last season against the Steelers. The Bengals break open their new FieldTurf surface in their 2004 home pre-season opener against the Pats Aug. 21.
"I appreciate that. I appreciate that," laughed Dillon, who also plays the Bengals Dec. 12 at Foxboro in the regular season. "But, you know. Things happen for a reason. A good thing came out of it."
Anderson isn't dwelling in the past, although he has fond memories of some of Dillon's great moments, such as the night he broke Jim Brown's rookie rushing record in Cincinnati. As Anderson stood on the sidelines that Thursday night in 1997, he thought Dillon broke Walter Payton's NFL record until someone clarified it for him.
"It's funny because then he broke that record," said Anderson of Dillon's 278-yard game in 2000. "But then I was thinking, 'Is Jim Brown's record a big deal?' after I found out. And it was, but I remember thinking how it first was the all-time record."
Dillon says 2004 is the most excited he's been about a season since college. Anderson won't let him have a monopoly on the excitement.
"There's only one thing I'm thinking about," Anderson said. "It's playing a tough Jets' team and coming home to a national TV game the next week against Miami. That's a beautiful thing. The goal is to try and get a jump on a good team in New York and then come home for that big game. Everything else is in the past."
Dillon won't forget that Thursday night.
"It wasn't all bad in Cincinnati," Dillon said. "I think a lot of things got blown out of proportion because we were losing."