BY GEOFF HOBSON
The biggest parlor game in Cincinnati at the moment is guessing how much Bengals running back Corey Dillon is worth on the open market.
Any takers after Dillon bulled to within 80 yards of the Colts' Edgerrin James and the AFC rushing title with Sunday's 216-yard effort pushing the Bengals past Arizona, 24-13, on the not-so-frozen tundra of Paul Brown Stadium?
"Without him, we're set back at least five years, maybe 10," said right tackle Willie Anderson if Dillon leaves after the season.
But would Dillon ever want to leave a field and coach that seem to suit his power workhorse game so well?
The Bengals will have permanent grass next season, but Dillon is averaging 6.1 yards per carry at home on the temporary stuff (145 carries for 891 yards), compared to 3.5 on the road this season.
And since Dick LeBeau became the Bengals coach ten games ago, he's averaging 22.3 carries per game. In the previous 33 games, Dillon averaged 17 carries.
There was a lot of talk about the soft field conditions, but Dillon hardly noticed.
"Up in Seattle, we had a lot of rain. I grew up playing on fields really messy compared to this one," Dillon said. "That's Grade A. That's wonderful. I've played on fields worse than this."
As for LeBeau, Dillon said if LeBeau is retained next season as coach, it would be a factor in his decision if he returns or leaves via free agency.
"But not because he likes to run the ball," Dillon said. "I like Dick as a person and as a coach."
Dillon isn't saying much about his contract. He's decided to let his legs speak for him and why not?
In becoming the first back to have two 200-yard games in the same season since Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders in 1997, what is Dillon doing to the $14 million signing bonus Eddie George hauled down this past summer?
"I'm not talking about any negotiations. I did that last year and it didn't work out well," said Dillon of the off-season ugliness. "I don't even think they're talking. I'm just thinking about playing the last three games.
"You can be part of the problem or part of the solution," said Dillon of sticking with the 3-10 Bengals. "I want to be part of the solution."
Sunday's solution for the Bengals was to run Dillon and Brandon Bennett (62 yards on 17 carries) behind Anderson and left tackle Rod Jones, aiming their 340-pound tandem at Arizona's undersized ends. Jones fended off 245-pound Simeon Rice and Anderson got on 270-pound Andre Wadsworth.
"I like watching Corey run the ball so much," said Bengals defensive captain Takeo Spikes. "I like the plays they made up for him. I just try to take it back home on my PlayStation."
The Bengals zapped the Cardinals on the weak side behind Jones on third-and-six from the Arizona 47 with 4:07 left in the game, and Dillon pounded out eight yards.
"As basic as you can get," said center Rich Braham. "Straight ahead behind the tackles."
The Bengals mixed it up with trap plays by pulling guards Mike Goff and Scott Rehberg, with Anderson blocking down on the right side when Goff pulled from next to him.
"Sometimes we got away from what was working so well," Anderson said. "And the coaches knew that and we went back to it."
Dillon saluted Jones for "stabilizing Rice," and fullback Nick Williams, "for taking on the safety most of the time," at the line of scrimmage.
The sheer value of Dillon to the Bengals came on the fourth-and-two from the Arizona 31 with 2:19 left in the game.
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The Cardinals penetrated and had Dillon stuffed in the backfield. But he felt his way to the outside on the left and lowered his head and stiff-armed Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams.
Dillon flogged himself for going out of bounds 13 yards later, but the damage was done and the Cardinals had to start calling timeouts.
"I just wanted to keep my feet moving and try to get up field were the only things on my mind," Dillon said.
"One of the safeties came down to penetrate, but Nick picked him up and did a good job of blocking. I just took it outside. I should have stayed in-bounds, but I didn't know where I was on the field, I was thinking of getting those extra yards."
The man who couldn't make the play, Williams, and the man who backs him up, Bennett, both found themselves saying the same thing after the game.
Williams: "I'm surprised at the patience Corey Dillon showed. He did a great job of cutting back when he had opportunities and taking advantage of what we gave him."
Bennett: "Corey does a great job of waiting for the offensive line. He's so patient and then he runs through it."
Dillon flashed a little old school when asked about his '60s and '70s stiff arm.
"It's just another tool in the arsenal," Dillon said. "It's something my brothers taught me when I was younger and picked up watching the highlight videos of older running backs."
Dillon said he watched guys like Jim Brown dish out the pain. He said he traded tape with teammates and, "I would buy the videos myself, you know, $19.95 at the video store. You can learn a lot from watching those old type tapes."
The Bengals know Dillon is worth a lot more than $19.95.
"He can't leave me. I'm here six more years," Anderson said. "I think he wants to stay. I'm just praying a deal gets done. Go ahead and give him the bank. That's what he deserves. Make him happy."