Bengals try to ink their Pro Bowler

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Back-to-back Pro Bowls.

Yes, running back Corey Dillon and Bengals President Mike Brown are on the same page. They just haven't signed it yet.

They both know what two straight Pro Bowls mean.

"Anytime a player makes it two years in a row, that establishes that they are bona fide," Brown said Thursday after Dillon was named the club's only Pro Bowler.

"He's a proven top player now. I congratulate him on the fact that he earned it," Brown said.

Dillon had heard whispers during the off-season's cantankerous contract negotiations. The Bengals felt he was a solid back, but maybe not an elite back.

But now Dillon and the Titans' Eddie George (who makes about $6 million per year) are Pro Bowl backups and Curtis Martin ($5.4 million) and Terrell Davis (5.8) aren't on the team.

And Brown said Thursday it's "highly unlikely," the Bengals will lose him through free agency.

"You tell me," Dillon said Thursday when asked if he was now officially a top back. "I did it last year and there were still doubts about my skills in some areas. We'll see what this Pro Bowl does."

For the Bengals, it changes nothing. They already know Dillon is their meal ticket and are attempting to reach a long-term deal with him before he becomes a free agent March 2.

Brown reiterated Thursday if Dillon doesn't sign by then, the club will make him a transition free agent. That gives the Bengals the right to match any offer.

When Brown was asked if he could see a deal the Bengals wouldn't match, Brown said, "I think it's highly unlikely that would happen, although we prefer to sign him before March. We want him here and are making a strong effort."

It just so happened that Dillon's agents visited Paul Brown Stadium Thursday. But David Levine and Jim Sims, along with the Bengals, have imposed a news blackout on the negotiations.

"We're pleased he's going to the Pro Bowl. We knew he was going and so did the Bengals," is all Levine said.

Dillon, meanwhile, is flabbergasted when people pepper him about the contract because, "It's not up to me.

"I'd love to be here, but it's not my call," Dillon said. "If they get something done, they'll get something done. It's simple. If something doesn't happen, then it just won't get done. I'm not too much worried about it. I'll play hard and see what happens."

The Bengals know Dillon will play hard. Management has loved the way he responded to this past summer's three-week holdout, which ended in a one-year, $3 million contract. If he's frustrated at the lack of winning and the offensive line's inconsistency, he's exploded only on the field for a club-record 1,320 yards.

The Bengals made it known during the negotiations they didn't think he could run away from the safeties. So Dillon has responded with three touchdown runs of 41 yards or more and the Bengals took note.

"He's had some long runs, which is good," Brown said. "I think this is his best year."

Dillon said he won't be surprised if critics come up with other faults. "I know something will be said about something, but I'm prepared for that also," which will help him because last year he let the criticism get under his skin.

If it's his last year in Cincinnati, then Sunday is his last game as a Bengal at Paul Brown Stadium. It sounds like Mike Brown won't let it be, and Dillon says it's not even running through his mind.

But he says he has something with the fans. It was a tenuous relationship in the offseason, when he said he'd rather flip burgers than play here.

But the people know he has given them everything, including two of the most special days in Cincinnati sports history.

This past Oct. 22, when he broke Walter Payton's NFL record for most yards in a game with 278. And Dec. 4, 1997, when he broke Jim Brown's NFL rookie record with 246.

"I love the fans," Dillon said.

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"And I think the fans love me. Through all the stuff that's gone on, they've shown me a lot of appreciation. They care about me and that feels good. I can honestly say that the fans are behind me."

He also praised the people in front of him.

"It's a reflection of a group of guys working hard that have the same common goal," Dillon said. "We're not where we want to be in the win column, but we're all out there fighting hard.

"The offensive line did a great job for me," Dillon said. "The fullbacks, Clif (Groce) and Nick (Williams) did an awesome job. There was also tremendous help from the tight ends and wide receivers blocking down the field. The total team put me in this position."

Dillon said one of the reasons his selection is gratifying is because no matter the Bengals' record, "it shows people appreciate my works. That's really special."

Dillon has a special relationship with coach Dick LeBeau and why not? When LeBeau took the job as head coach Sept. 25, he announced that the Bengals had the best back in the NFL and they would use him and use him and use him.

Dillon responded. Frustrated by an average of 17 carries per game in the 33 games before LeBeau took over, Dillon has averaged 22 in the 11-game LeBeau era. He says LeBeau's status would be one of the factors in what he does.

"I had a great relationship with Dick before he ever became a head coach," Dillon said. "I've got the utmost respect for Dick not only as a coach, but as a person."

It's hard to see Dillon leaving given the Bengals' stance and that Paul Brown Stadium seems to fit him so well. Defining Dillon's back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, indeed defining his four-year career bordering on Hall-of-Fame numbers, can be found in his answer to a simple question.

How is he gaining 6.1 yards per carry on a field where people love to complain about the footing?

"Determination," Dillon said. "I'm just working hard. I'm not too much into averages."

Of course, he's probably pretty interested in a $5 million per year average.

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