Warrick ponders; Dillon hints

12-25-03, 2:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

This is new thinking throughout Bengaldom and wide receiver Peter Warrick has clearly thought about it.

He wants to play Sunday in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. But he is listed as doubtful He also doesn't want to put so much stress on his surgically-repaired knee that he can't play in the first round of the playoffs, scheduled in 10 or 11 days at Paul Brown Stadium if they win and the Ravens lose this weekend.

"I would rather sit out this week, and hopefully Pittsburgh beats Baltimore," said Warrick, who expressed optimism that the Bengals can beat the Browns without him. "I have confidence in our team.

Hopefully they can win it without me. I wish I had played last Sunday."

Like Warrick, left guard Eric Steinbach (thigh) and left tackle Levi Jones (knee) didn't practice Wednesday. But Steinbach (questionable) is running on a land treadmill and is hopeful, and Jones is probable.

Warrick, who is just five days removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, said he couldn't have played Wednesday, but neither he or head coach Marvin Lewis ruled him our for the weekend.

"It's going to be a game-time situation. It's all going to boil down to me. How my mind is. When you're hurting, and it's in the back of your mind. Are you thinking about it? If it's just go play and not thinking about it, it will be all right."

Warrick missed just the second game of his 63-game career last Sunday in St. Louis and the Bengals missed him. Quarterback Jon Kitn said two of the benchmarks that show how much the Bengals have improved over last season are their third-down percentage and touchdown percentage in the red zone. They are fourth in the NFL in third-down efficiency and are seventh in red-zone efficiency.

Of Warrick's 75 career-high catches, 23 have come on third down, eighth best in the AFC. Four of his career-high seven touchdowns have come inside the 20 and one was from the 21. Against the Rams, the Bengals were just 31 percent on third down and one-for-two in the red zone with a turnover.

"He's a big part of our plan in those situations," Kitna said. "He's someone who has learned what defenses are trying to do."

The Bengals stayed at Paul Brown Stadium to practice Wednesday after spending all last week at the Wall2Wall soccer complex in Mason. Lewis thought the practice fields were in good enough shape because they had been covered, but the weather man didn't call for the snow showers that hit as practice started.

Also Wednesday, wide receiver Chad Johnson allowed he didn't get fined by the NFL last week for any uniform violations.

**

CD FAREWELL?:** Corey Dillon didn't say good-bye Wednesday, but he sure didn't do anything to stop the speculation that Sunday is going to be the final Paul Brown Stadium appearance for the club's all-time leading rusher.

"You said that, I didn't say that," said Dillon, when told it sounds like he won't be back. "I'm ecstatic about this week. I can see the light. I'm focused on that light. It's going to come full circle in a little bit."

Injuries and illness to Dillon have given the Bengals a back-by-committee with Rudi Johnson. Dillon said his groin injury was more serious than the team let on, but that he has been healthy since the Nov. 23 victory over San Diego, his lone 100-yard game.

He said he spoke with Rams running back Marshall Faulk before last Sunday's game and he let it be known that he knows how Faulk got traded from the Colts to the Rams and "took his career to another dimension.

"He got a lot of the same press," said Dillon about how critics questioned Faulk before the trade. "And here he is going into his 10th season and he's still the man. (He) shed a little light on my situation. Got me back thirsty. He got on a different team, Super Bowl MVP, Super Bowl champ. . .Interesting. Interesting."

But Dillon said he's a team player, and will continue to do as asked Sunday and share responsibilities and carries with Johnson.

"We still have a shot to play next week," he said.

Dillon said he spoke to Faulk before the game in a summit of the men coming into 2003 that had gained the second and third most yards, respectively in the NFL for the past four seasons.

"At this point in my career, you can say what you want. My stats speak for themselves," said Dillon who became the 28th man in history to rush for 8,000 career yards last Sunday in St. Louis. "I wasn't supposed to be here this long. I've been proving people wrong since I stepped into a uniform.'

He also became the team leader in yards rushing from scrimmage for a career last Sunday, and on Wednesday he said, "I've got five, six strong years left. You take this year, and I figure it just adds another year to my career."

Dillon, who has carried just 130 times this season, left the impression he wants those next five to six years to be some place else.

"I didn't say that, you said that," he told a reporter who said it sounded like he didn't want to come back.

When another asked if he wanted to return, Dillon asked back, "What do you think? What's your analysis?"

He won't say it. And he'll remind you he didn't say it. What he did do is talk an awful lot about "a light at the end of the tunnel.

"My eyes are on the prize. I see the light and the light is bright," Dillon said. "And I'm just joyful. I'm happy that no one is going to rob me of this week, next week, the week after.

"I haven't said a word," Dillon said. "I just see a light and that light is bright and it s great. The situation is what it is. All I'm doing is going out to try to help the team win. If that means two carries, I'm going to run hard for two carries, dammit. I'll go hard for those two carries, and that's me."

Dillon said he loves the fans ("They always gave me their respect"), but he has no special tribute planned for them Sunday.

"I'll honor them by playing hard," Dillon said. "Do what I've done for seven years. Play as hard as I can. That's my payback."

There is some speculation that Dillon is bristling in the committee and wants to go somewhere he'll get the majority of the carries. Since he had his lone 100-yard game of the season Nov. 23 in San Diego, he has carried 37 times in the last four games while Johnson has carried 46 times. He had just seven carries last week in St. Louis.

But he denied the number of carries are a problem.

"I'm not going to get into that. Whatever happens, happens. I don't mind competing for carries. That's not even an issue. I'm not worried about getting any carries. My whole emphasis on coming back is letting people know I can still play this game, and I did that. I've proved that. That's all I wanted to do. I've got nothing else to prove. I've been doing this for a long time. What do I have to prove? Why should I have to go out there and break my back to prove what I don't have to do?"

The back-by-committee hasn't worked lately. They did get back-to-back wins out of it against San Diego and Pittsburgh last month with Dillon getting 28 carries and Johnson 27. But in their six other wins, Johnson or Dillon carried at least 18 times while the other had single-digit carries.

All such talk about next season began in earnest two months ago after Dillon touched off a national incident the Wednesday after the Bengals moved into a tie for first place with the Ravens. He embarked on a day-long vent in which he said he was underappreciated and that he wouldn't mind a trade.

He fumed at trade rumors linking him to the Cowboys, infuriated with the speculation that injuries had made him expendable and convinced the story started in Cincinnati. But the two teams never talked about Dillon leading up to the trading deadline, and the story seems to have sprung out of Dallas, where the Cowboys at the time were mulling their backs situation.

Dillon got hit with a public backlash since the comments came as the team was finally in the playoff chase in October, and he no doubt also took some strong words from head coach Marvin Lewis. Since that day, every public utterance has come out of a Chip Hilton novel and has been a model of a team performer. He even apologized for the outburst.

When asked what he's proudest of, Dillon didn't get into the career records or two of the hugest days in NFL rushing history, or the three Pro Bowls.

"The thing I'm most proud about this year, man, is, I'm a warrior," Dillon said. "I'm a survivor. Everyone is trying to write me off. Corey's disgruntled. He's a bad apple. I came back, sucked it up, and played ball. You want to talk about character? I'm tougher than leather. It gets no tougher. I came back willing to share responsibilities. I'm a team player. And I'm going to be a team player. So everything people were out there selling woof tickets about, it was all hocus pocus."

But if Dillon doesn't want to say he wants out, then no one wants to say he does, either. And no one wants to say the Bengals want to get rid of him. It's pretty clear the Bengals have spent 0.0 time thinking about it in what could be a playoff year.

What is clear is the Bengals have to do some hocus pocus with the salary cap next season. Does that make a Dillon trade a possibility?

They could wait, and cut him after June 1 and take the majority of his $4.2 million accelerated bonus into 2005 and not 2004. But the Bengals' M.O. is not dumping dead money into future years and they would probably prefer to get at least a first-day draft pick for him instead of nothing, if they indeed start thinking about trading him.

Plus, the $4.2 million hit in '04 is about a push when compared to his $3.4 million salary.

With the emergence of restricted free agent Rudi Johnson and the fine play of quarterback Jon Kitna, the Bengals are suddenly top heavy cap-wise at those positions.

With No. 1 pick Carson Palmer poised to send the cap sky-rocketing once he hits certain triggers, it's going to be hard to keep even a middle of the road salary like Kitna's with Palmer. But they certainly can't ask Kitna to reduce his $4.3 million cap hit in '04 off his brilliant season, so they will most likely have to suck it up there.

Does that mean they may have to bite the bullet at running back? Can they give Dillon his $3.4 million and Johnson something in the $2 million range? The Bengals figure to tender Johnson that amount for one year so they can at least get first-round compensation for Johnson if they lose him.

But all this is speculation. If the Bengals trade Dillon, does that open it up for a team to make Johnson a huge offer? And maybe the Bengals hold on to Dillon in case a team just plain offers Johnson a deal they can't match.

Who knows what is going to happen?

Dillon is at least convinced that he has contributed to the best team record of his career. He has been the heart and soul of this team in the worst of times and he finally has an eight-win season.

"I've said it for a long time, I'd sacrifice a lot to win, and so be it," Dillon said. "I've broken records, I've been there. The only thing I'm interested in is (Super Bowl) jewelry."

And, yes, he does want to go to the playoffs. Which means, Sunday wouldn't be his last game as a Bengal.

"It would be awesome," Dillon said. "We just have to take care of our business and see what shakes out with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. That's going to be a tough one. They're two tough teams. That'll be interesting to watch. I know I'll be watching."

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