4-15-02, 1:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Corey Dillon looked at the names who have run before him and then knocked on the wood all around him as he anticipates another year of grime and punishment.
"I'm like wine," said Dillon the other day after breaking an easy sweat in the weight room. "The more I age, the better I turn. Nothing is guaranteed in this game. It would be a great honor to end up in the company of those guys, but whatever happens, happens. My thing is my legs. Right now, this is the best my legs have felt since high school."
In his first five seasons, the Bengals Pro Bowl running back already has the pleasure of the company of the great running backs. His career total of 6,209 yards is the 12th-best five-year start in NFL history, and if he repeats it over the next five years he'll move ahead of Jim Brown into sixth-place on the all-time rushing list with 12,418.
1st Five Years
2nd Five Years
- 1-year total
** 2-year total
* 3-year total
Of course, with contemporaries Jerome Bettis (12), Ricky Watters (13), Marshall Faulk (16) and Curtis Martin (18) already ahead of him on the all-time list and moving up weekly the next few seasons, the NFL rushing chart is going to be remade by the end of Dillon's 10th NFL season in 2006.
But age and happenstance have already crept into Dillon's generation of backs. Injuries and carries have taken their toll on Eddie George and Terrell Davis as the seemingly indestructible Dillon heads into this season trying to join Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, and Martin as the only players to begin their NFL careers with six straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Just how long a bruising, take-on-the-safety runner like the 6-1, 225-pound Dillon can
keep churning out 4.4 yards per carry will be answered only by time. The lone man of the 11 ahead of Dillon on the first five-year list who gained more yards in his second five years was the acrobatic Barry Sanders.
But Dillon says he's not veering away from his style ("You hear people talk about what happened to Earl Campbell, but it doesn't seem like it has slowed me down any so I'm not going to change the way I play,") and Bengals trainer Paul Sparling thinks the meanest stiff-arm this side of the law has actually saved him from some pain.
"He's got a brutal, brutal stiff-arm," Sparling said. "There is no question that has absorbed a lot of hits. Most guys would have tried to run out of bounds and they get caught and get hit. You will see defenders lay back because once they've had that stiff arm, they don't want to go back."
There is always talk about running backs having the shortest shelf life of any position in the NFL, but the elite require durability. Dillon has missed just two games, once with a lower back bruise and once when his left kneecap slid out of place. Of the top 12, only Jim Brown and Eddie George, who never missed game, have missed fewer games. Davis, with his devastating 1999 knee injury that wiped out the season's last 12 games, is just one of two players on the list not involved in a strike who missed double-figure games. He missed 15. Barry Sanders led everyone else with seven missed games in the first five years before finishing his career playing in every game of his last five seasons.
"It seems like," said Bengals President Mike Brown, who watched most of Jim Brown's career, "if they get this far into their career, they're going to be productive for a relatively long time."
Or, as Sparling said, "The stronger you are, the more durable you are. Corey keeps himself in tremendous condition. He knows his legs are his money and he goes to great lengths to keep them that way."
Dillon's left knee gave him some nagging problems this past year when it swelled frequently with fluid. He decided to have arthroscopic surgery to clean it out back in the first week in March and he was back on the leg machine in the weight room within weeks.
"I do a lot of leg extensions and a lot of running. Or I get on the treadmill or bike," Dillon said. "If I run, I'll be doing sprints, trying to get faster. I'm not as strong as some people in the upper body, but if you want to get in a lower body contest, I think I'll be up in there. I'm like a car. If you have a bad motor, you can't go. The legs are my motor."
Sparling said strength (along with a knee sleeve) is the major reason why the left kneecap hasn't slid out of place for the last two seasons. Sparling saw how work ethic protected the 5-10, 190-pound James Brooks from missing a lot of games and playing long enough to set the Bengals career rushing record (6,447) that Dillon is about to break.
"The last day of the season was J.B.'s first workout of the offseason," Sparling said. "C.D. always looks the same no matter when you see him. Like he's always ready to go."
And he has become wise to the ways of the training room, always a must for players trying to put one over on the league and play longer than the average. After Friday's workout, Dillon took the time for trainer Billy Brooks to do a little preventive work on a sore spot around his back.
"A few years ago, he would have let that go until he missed a practice," Sparling said. "He really is a joy to work with. Early in his career, he was ornery. He was easily unlikable early on. But he's made a complete 180. He knows what he needs to do and he does it."
Dillon looked at the names and set no goals. But he made it clear that when he finished his first NFL season under four yards per carry last year (3.9), it wasn't an indication he is losing a step.
"Look at all the great defenses we played," said Dillon of a 2001 season that included 10 games against defenses that averaged 3.5 yards or less per rush on the year. "We played some big boys and I think for the most part we did better than most teams against them."
Dillon also made it clear he'd like to play at least 10 years and that he just might be getting better.
"I look up to a guy like Tony McGee (going into his 10th year) who has been a real, solid consistent player for a long time," said Dillon, whose contract runs out after his ninth season. "I'd like to be a 10-plus guy. I don't know how much longer after that.
"I hope I'm going to be better," Dillon said of the second five years. "I don't think the older I get the weaker I'll get. It should be the older I get, the better I get. That's my mindset. Trying to get better each year. I think I will be better if I continue to train and just put it all in the team concept."