Pro Bowl reunion

UPDATED: 2-6-05, 6 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Rudi Johnson has given the NFL a great trivia question.

Name the last time a running back played in the same Pro Bowl backfield with the player whose team single-season rushing mark he broke. It could happen for the AFC Feb. 13 in Honolulu when Johnson is reunited with former teammate Corey Dillon.

Now it looks like it may happen.

Peter Schaffer, Johnson's agent, said Saturday night he is working out plans to get Johnson to the game. Johnson was informed so late of the move Friday that it conflicted with a family commitment.

Johnson's promotion from alternate gave Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson his fourth Pro Bowl runner in 21 seasons with the club.

"I think people have to look at that and realize that we do get some things right," Anderson said early Saturday morning.

Gaining recognition

After years of being unable to get virtually anyone named to the Pro Bowl, the Bengals are in a groove.

Injury took right tackle Willie Anderson out of the game, but on Friday injury also put Johnson in his first Pro Bowl in becoming the first Bengals running back to go since Dillon in 2001. Also Friday, injuries put Dillon into his fourth Pro Bowl in his first season with the Patriots. That gives the AFC the two backs that rotated for Cincinnati in the 2003 season and the Bengals single-season rushing leader in Johnson as well as the club's all-time rusher in Dillon.

With Anderson out, Johnson would have joined wide receiver Chad Johnson and cornerback Tory James in Cincinnati's first All-Star quartet since the 1990 playoff team.

The promotion may give Johnson a little more juice at the bargaining table, but Schaffer wouldn't comment on what it will do to talks with the team that are expected to pick up again next week. Or maybe not, since the voting already had Johnson as an alternate.

Johnson has said he won't play if the Bengals tender him the one-year figure of $6.3 million, making him a franchise free agent that virtually secures his position in Cincinnati for one more year. But it looks like he can't play next Sunday, either.

"I'm so happy for Rudi because he worked so hard to prove himself," Anderson said. "It hasn't been an easy road for him and he's worked at it."

Yes, Anderson is also happy that Dillon stands on the brink of a Super Bowl title Sunday. His relationship with the reluctant star – along with everyone else in Cincinnati - was up and down as documented by some sideline blowups.

"I'm not a hater," Anderson said. "Of course I'm happy for him. You can say what you want, but no matter what happened, it's about hard work. And Corey went over there and worked hard to fit in and that's something you have to admire. Hopefully at some point, those two guys (Dillon and Johnson) will look around and say, 'JA did help us along the way.' "

Anderson won't tip his hand on who he'd like to see win it, but it's pretty clear he's got a rooting interest in the Patriots. New England assistant head coach and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was the Cal Western offensive line coach when Anderson was an assistant coach at his alma mater.

At least one observer will tell you that Dillon showed up in New England more ready for running backs coach Ivan Fears than he did for Anderson in recent camps.

"He's a completely different player," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. "Look at him. He's in much better shape right now than he ever was in the last two or three years he was playing for the Bengals. It obviously means more to him."

Seeing double?

There has obviously been two Dillons in Jacksonville this week. There is the malcontent who masterminded his way out of Cincinnati with toxic comments and there is the guy the Patriots embraced as a team player.

"I try not to make personal judgments on a guy. If I've never met someone, I try to stay away from that," said Patriots center Dan Koppen. "He's been great in the locker room. He's not outspoken. He just comes to work, and he's in there as much as anybody else. He's a great guy to have in the locker room."

Anderson joins a long lost of Bengals who wouldn't rip Dillon this week, which doesn't surprise the Patriots. In the weeks leading up to the April 19 trade, head coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli couldn't find anyone to say anything bad about him.

In fact, the reports they got out of Cincinnati pretty much made moot a face-to-face meeting in Connecticut before the trade was announced.

"It was a piece of the puzzle," Pioli said of the meeting with him, Belichick, Dillon and agent Steve Feldman. "It's important to meet face to face with players. It's an important part of what I do in terms of what I see in their eyes and hear them.

"But we talked to a lot of other people," Pioli said. "Coaches and players who know our system, other players represented by the same agent who had a relationship with Corey. It just wasn't just our meeting."

Ironically, the recommendation of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis probably sealed the deal before any meeting. Pioli has known Lewis since they worked together in Baltimore for a season in 1996.

"I trust Marvin," Pioli said. "Marvin had nothing but positive things to say about Corey. I trusted Marvin's word."

Dillon shrugged when told Lewis looked to be the key to getting him out. Even though Lewis never took on Dillon publicly, Dillon made it clear he wasn't comfortable with their relationship.

"I don't know about all that," said Dillon of the Lewis recommendation. "All I can speak for is when (they met), it wasn't, 'We heard this and we heard that.' We got a feel for one another and took it from there.

"Believe me, if they didn't think I was going to fit in here," Dillon said, "they wouldn't have even met. That's the way I gauged it."

The effect on the Patriots offense has been enormous.

"We've had some guys who were good players, but we had nobody that people were going to game plan for," Fears said. "Now we've got a guy that everyone talks about before he's even played. He's backed that up with his play. He changed us big time. Everybody has to play that boy. That's opened up our guys on the outside. It takes away that double coverage. That's how teams would try and beat us. Make us run it and take away the pass, and they can't do that now."

Final piece of the puzzle

Pioli and the players may say they had no pre-conceived notions, but Fears has to admit that he was wondering what he was getting with the arrival of a guy that had a reputation for having such a combustible personality.

"In the back of my mind, I was floored after I met him," Fears said. "From day one, the guy was real happy to be here and he's been great to work with. And nobody ever said anything bad about him. He wasn't bad-mouthed by the other organization."

Fears doesn't think such a move is so odd in this day and age. A defending Super Bowl champion getting the one player that can make them a dynasty is a product of the movement of the free agency era.

"He's somebody else's problem and our solution. Look at Damien Woody," said Fears of the former Patriots Pro Bowl guard-center. "We couldn't pay him, we had to let him go and we had another guy in the box ready to go. Look at this year. It looks like (Bills running back) Travis Henry is going to be out there."

Matt Light, the New England tackle from near the Dayton, Ohio area, never saw Dillon play. He's glad he has now.

"I didn't have any pre-conceived notions of who or what he was," Light said. "I was impressed when he got here and what he's been able to do on the field. He's a heck of running back. The way he plays, the guy won't run out of bounds. He's going to go through someone before he runs away from someone, which is great to see."

This game is turning into a validation game for Dillon. Anything ranging from a solid outing to a MVP performance on the sport's biggest stage should solidify his Hall of Fame credentials. After all, he's only about three regular-season games shy of 10,000 yards.

"Interesting," Dillon said, flashing that irreverence he had in Cincinnati. "I don't look at it like that. There's a lot of great players in the Hall of Fame that didn't get the opportunity to win a ring. I don't worry about stuff like that. All that stuff is out of my control."

Esiason has been raving about Dillon ever since they each broke into the Bengals starting lineup late in the 1997 season and sparked a 4-1 finish. The veteran in his last season briefly took the rookie under his wing like he did everyone else on that offense. Like every other Bengal, it seems, this week, Esiason won't rip him.

"I told you how great he was going to be," Esiason said. "I don't like the way he went about forcing the move. No, but I can understand it from a player's perspective. He did what he thought he had to do and I'm really happy for him because he was in such a tough situation."

It's also a completely different situation because of the presence of Belichick. Dillon didn't mind fitting into a successful system already in place.

"He's a player's coach," Dillon said. "He's got a great sense of humor. He's straight to the point. What I like about him is that we're similar. He likes to come to work, get our work done, this is how it's going to be, let's get it done and go home. We don't like all the madness ... that's what I respect about him the most."

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