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12-3-02, 9:05 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Eric Dickerson, the first man in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons, expects to meet the most recent to do it on the steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

"I think he'll be in there," said Dickerson earlier this week from Los Angeles of BBengals running back Corey Dillon. "He's accomplished some great things and I think he's one of the best three backs in the league right now with LaDainian Tomlinson and Edgerrin James."

But Dickerson is thankful he didn't have to take Dillon's route to Canton. He figures he went on a yellow-brick road of 13,259 yards compared to Dillon's path that has yielded 7,227 heading into Sunday's game in Carolina.

"I never would have stayed on a losing team like that. Never," Dickerson said. "I tip my hat to him for signing back in Cincinnati. I wouldn't have gone back. If he played on a better team, people would really know who he was."

But the more yards Dillon racks up this season (he has 1,018 for a 1,357 pace), the better the odds are the 1-11 Bengals won't finish below their all-time worst record of 3-13.

Since the NFL began with Beattie Feathers getting 1,004 yards for the 1934 Chicago Bears, there have only been three 1,000-yard runners for teams that won just one game and only the Jets' Adrian Murrell has done it since the 1970 merger in 1996.

There have been only five 1,000-yard backs for teams that have won just two games, the last coming 10 years ago when Chris Warren barely got it with 1,017 for the 1992 Seahawks.

Dillon already has one of the nine 1,000-yard seasons for teams that won three games. The last time that

happened was in 1998, when Dillon, Marshall Faulk of the Colts and Duce Staley of the Eagles all hit the number with 3-13 teams.

"I don't know how long he can keep doing it," Dickerson said. "It's amazing to me he's been able to do

it for this long. But at some point you've got to think he's not going to be able to do the same things with everybody chasing him. I like watching him play. He's got the cutting ability and vision."

Having a 1,000-yard back lifts the odds of getting to four and five wins. Dillon has two of the 17 1,000-yard seasons for teams that have won four games. There have been a total of 23 1,000-yard rushers for teams that won five, the latest in San Diego's Tomlinson last season and the first in the Steelers' John Henry Johnson in 1964.

"I had to be sold on Tomlinson," Dickerson said. "I didn't think he was all that big and I wasn't sure about the conference he played in because (at Texas Christian) it's not like the old Southwest Conference. But I like him after watching him since last year. He's got good speed and he cuts well."

Dickerson, who now has opened an investment company after his run as Monday Night Football's sideline reporter, is hesitant to classify backs because everyone has their own style. He says there is only one in the league now who comes close to matching his dimensions. Both Dickerson and Tennessee's Eddie George are 6-3, but George is 20 pounds heavier at 240 and, "no, I don't think he's got my speed because, remember, I ran track, so not many guys could run as fast as me. I was a football player who ran track."

Dickerson sees the 6-1, 225-pound Dillon leading the league in at least one category.

"Corey probably has that best combination of power and speed," Dickerson said. "He can make guys miss or he can run over them. To me in the NFL, it's all about making people miss, no matter how you do it."

The key for Dickerson is the offensive line's ability to allow the back to get a full head of steam without having to make his first move in the backfield.

"To be able to get to about the linebackers (level) is a running back's dream," Dickerson said. "Then you have the ability to make your moves to make that cut. That's the most important move for the back to make is the cut."

Dickerson, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, thinks Dillon belongs, but he worries about how the panel is going to treat him.

"I disagree with the way these guys vote," Dickerson said. "They look too much at teams who won Super Bowls or went to the Super Bowl and that could hurt a guy like Corey and it's not fair just because he didn't play for a winner."

But the numbers may not deny him. Dillon has 52 more games under contract and if he plays in all of them and keeps the 85.7 yards per game average since he's been in the starting lineup, he'll finish his ninth season with 11,683 yards.

At the moment, there are a dozen backs with at least 11,000 yards and ten of them are either in the Hall or locks if you consider Marcus Allen and his 145 touchdowns a lock. Of the other two, Thurman Thomas and Jerome Bettis will get debated.

"I hope he can keep going like that because it's so tough on a running back on a team that doesn't win," Dickerson said.

But that is what makes Dillon such a strong candidate. Only two backs have gained more than 1,000 yards twice on teams that won four games: Dillon with 1,435 in 2000 and 1,200 in 1999. Gerald Riggs went for 1,719 yards in 1985 after rushing for 1,486 in 1984 during back-to-back 4-12s for the Falcons.

Only Faulk has rushed for 1,000 yards on two different 3-13 teams, the '97 and '98 Colts. But those are few and far between. Before Faulk did it in 1997 with 1,054, Herschel Walker was the last one to do it in 1988 on 1,514 yards for the 3-13 Cowboys.

The first man to rush for 1,000 yards for a three-win team was Jim Nance of the Boston Patriots in 1967, followed by Paul Robinson the next season for the expansion Bengals.

Before Murrell became the only man to hit 1,000 for a team that won one game in the post-merger era with 1,249 yards, Gale Sayers ran 1,032 yards for the 1-13 Brian's Song Bears of 1969. In 1962, Dick Bass had 1,033 yards for the 1-12-1 Rams.

Before Warren hit 1,000 for the 2-14 Seahawks of '92, the mid-80s had a spate of 1,000-yard runners on two-win teams. Earl Campbell hit 1,301 for the '83 Oilers, Greg Bell 1,100 for the '84 Bills, and James Wilder 1,300 for the '85 Buccaneers.

Before that? Twice in 35 years. How great of a season did O.J. Simpson have in a 14-game schedule when he won the NFL rushing title with 1,503 yards for the 2-12 Bills in 1976?

That's 5.2 yards per carry, kids. He took another rushing title for a Buffalo team that won just four games on his 1,251 yards in 1972.

With Dillon zeroing in on 1,357 yards, he should end up with comparable numbers against fellow Pro Bowl backs who also played on struggling teams.

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