BY GEOFF HOBSON
While Patriots running back Corey Dillon continues to decline comment this week in Foxboro, everyone else is talking about him as Sunday's showdown looms with the Bengals team he once defined and ultimately rejected.
His ex-mates in Bengaldom say he's running like he did in the old days, and why not? His team is 11-1, and he's 129 yards away from another $500,000 incentive.
- "He's probably having the most fun he's ever had ... you can tell the difference. He's running harder," said Rudi Johnson, the man who replaced Dillon in Cincinnati. "He's stiff-arming people. He's bringing it all back. Plus, he's having fun." "He has brought (the Patriots) another outlet," said the man who traded Dillon, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "You can control the clock. It seems every time we give it to him, there are positives things happening," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the man who besides Johnson has been impacted most by the trade. "He's a defender's best friend," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who didn't pay much attention to the sound bites that said he was so unfriendly in Cincinnati. "He gets five, six, seven yards a carry. As a defense, you just sit back on the bench and watch him and take another drink of Gatorade."
It's a bit ironic that Dillon has pulled the curtain around him this week. His pull-no-punches quotes and sometimes bizarre rambling media sessions are as much a part of his Bengals legacy as the 18 franchise records he either holds or shares. But the Bengals don't want to play, either.
"Football games are played in the lines. It's football. It's not a damn circus show," said right tackle Willie Anderson.
Believe that Lewis tried to make him happy and see the new light in Cincinnati. He had meetings with him and other players during the season to see if they could figure something out. But Dillon never embraced it like new teammates such as Bruschi say he has embraced the Patriots.
The bottom line is that Dillon wanted out. The 11 victories the Pats have this year match what the Bengals won combined from 1998-2000. While he never said it, he gave all indications that he didn't think the Bengals would give Lewis what he needs to make the Super Bowl. He also had his feelings hurt when the Bengals continued to rotate him with Johnson last season after his torn groin healed.
The man who once said he'd rather flip burgers than play for the Bengals while openly wondering if he had to wear the team helmet in the Pro Bowl is now dining on filet mignon.
Case closed. As Lewis told the New England media Wednesday, he plays for another team.
And how he has played. He's on pace to become the Patriots' best single-season rusher at 1,665 yards, breaking Curtis Martin's record by nearly 200 yards and maxing out his contract. Dillon has already picked up $1 million in incentives on top of his $1.75 million base salary, ringing $350,000 last week in reaching 1,200 yards. He'll knock off $500,000 when he reaches 1,350, and max out at $2.25 million at 1,600. That would give him $4 million in his re-structured Pats' contract, compared to the $3.3 million he would have received this season in Cincinnati.
Dillon has become the Pats' money man simply by changing the entire personality of their offense. It still belongs to the two-time Super Bowl MVP Brady, but with Dillon in the fold, the Patriots are on pace this season to run the ball 521 times and pass it 485. That has reversed last year's ratio of 527-476 pass to run.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick says Dillon has made his team more balanced and more effective in the red zone, where they are ranked 13th in the league scoring touchdowns. This year, they are on pace to rush for 500 more yards (2,114) than last season and throw for 150 more (3,581). Last season, New England finished 15th in rushing, fourth in passing and eighth overall in NFL offense. They head into the Bengals game virtually reversed at eighth in rushing, tied for 12th in passing, and ninth overall.
"He's established us as a team that you also have to focus on a running back," Bruschi said. "He's added another dimension to us. We look for even more things from him once the weather gets bad."
New England already had one of the league's more versatile and deepest receiving corps. The addition of Dillon has made the Patriots quite a headache for defensive coordinators.
"He has given them a player who runs hard downhill. He has made a difference in their football team that way," Lewis said. "He hits the outside perimeter that way and makes plays. He has brought them another outlet, where in years past they have run more spread formations. They have replaced the passing game where they used to look for that quick six or seven-yard throw in the beginning of a drive with running the football, and that takes more time off the clock."
But, naturally, New England Nation is going to be anxious about something. Yes, the Red Sox won the World Series and the Pats have a Hall of Fame running back. But now the worry is that Brady can't get into sync with all this running. Dillon is on pace for 346 carries, a career-high and second in franchise history to Martin's 368.
"It is different. I'm sure it is different to watch," Brady said. "It is different to play. I think our record speaks for itself. When you are 11-1, we are doing the things to try to win. The idea of this game is to win and score more points. Whether you throw it or run it, being 11-1, think we all feel pretty good about where we are at."
Brady's numbers would seem to soothe the masses. They have improved with Dillon behind him. He's got 19 touchdown passes and nine interceptions with a career-high 90.4 passer rating compared to last season's 23-12, 85.9.
The balanced attacked strikes at the heart of Belichick's team concept. On Wednesday, he reiterated to the Patriots press corps that the offensive game plans are dictated as much by the opponent as anything else.
"I know that's not what you want to hear, but that is the way it is. We go in with a game plan and then, as the game develops and unfolds, some things get emphasized more than others, depending on their success and reaction to what they are doing on the other side of the ball," Belichick said.
"If we are throwing it more it is because we think that is the best thing to do. If we are running it more it is because we think that is the best thing to do," he said. "If we are balanced it is because we want to stay balanced. We have gone both ways on that. We have thrown it 50 times. We have run it 50 times. And we have been balanced. So, we'll do what we think is best to win. That is what the game is centered around, not individual stats."
One thing that won't be balanced Sunday is Dillon's emotion. Both his current teammates and old teammates know he's going to be jacked up.
"Two pretty good ones," Johnson said of his matchup. "He's going to break some tackles, I'm going to break some tackles. He's going to try and make guys miss, I'm going to try and make guys miss. It should be fun."
Brushci is looking forward to backing him up.
"He's really embraced the concept of team. We haven't had a problem with Corey from day one," Bruschi said. "I had seen some things in the past in Cincinnati but, really, Corey has been a guy for us that's been nothing but dependable."
Brady, the master politician, is also quarterbacking the company line that seems to be coming out of both locker rooms this week.
"I'm sure he is excited. I'm sure any time you play against one of your former teams, you are excited, but he spoke for himself," Brady said. "I don't want to go speaking for him. This is a big week for us as a team. We are coming down the stretch. We are in the last quarter of the season and each week is more important than the previous. This week is no different, especially getting a team that is very talented and very good."