10-29-02, 8:15 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Sometimes, Corey Dillon needs a gentle reminder of what he means to this franchise and his teammates.
He's their MVP. Their one consensus Pro Bowl player. Their money player who makes the big coin. Their game-breaker.
In a locker room of men, he is "The Man."
During a break in a visit to Children's Hospital last Friday with several other teammates, right tackle Willie Anderson mentioned to Dillon that he is as important to them as Eddie George is to the Titans and as Boomer Esiason was on the rookie Dillon's team.
"Sometimes," Dillon mused Monday, "I don't see myself like other people see me. To me, I'm just Corey. Just a guy from Washington who plays football. He just kind of reminded me who you are and what you are and what you can do."
So for maybe the first time in his star-studded career, Dillon chose to impose his formidable will on his teammates a la Boomer. The day before Sunday's loss to George's Titans, Dillon uncharacteristically took each of his offensive lineman aside with a simple message for a group that had been struggling to get the room he needed consistently to keep the Bengals in the game.
The team that finished second in the NFL in rushing two years ago and had a three-time Pro Bowl running back went into the bye week 19th in NFL rushing and wasn't able to keep games close early with what was supposed to be their signature running game.
"They're counting on me, I'm counting on them," Dillon said. "I pulled aside guys in spare time. Basically, it was, 'I need you to get where I need to get. You need me to get to where you need to go. We need each other to get to where we want to get.' That's the commitment we've got to each other.''
The gesture probably turned out to be as important as any play call because
the line responded with their best rushing day in a year and brought the Bengals within inches of their first victory of the season.
"It was basically a re-commitment to each other and we're going to stay true to our commitment," Dillon said. "I told
them I've appreciated what they've done for me. I'm nothing without them. I got a commitment from them and they got a commitment from me.
"My boys were fighting. They worked their butt offs. I don't know what anybody else is doing, but me and them boys, we're going to do it. Win, lose or draw, we're going to fight you. If we play like we did Sunday, we're going to win a lot of games."
Anderson, who saw Esiason's iron will take a 2- 7 start and bend it into a 7-9 finish in 1997, told Dillon his yards would "skyrocket," if he made a personal appeal.
"You know how the guys look up to Corey and I told he's got the kind of respect around here where can assert his will on this team," Anderson said. "What this team needs sometimes is guy like him to be vocal and speak up.
"I told him, 'We have to ride your back.' And the coaches have to realize we have to ride his back. Corey and I talked about how Boomer was that one year. When he told you to do something, you didn't want to fail him."
Dillon admits he's not comfortable with the vocal role. He would rather lead by taking a handoff in practice and running angrily for 50 yards down the sideline rather than say it.
Center Rich Braham, who, like Anderson, has blocked for nearly all of Dillon's 6,811 career yards, noticed.
"It just shows you he loves to play football," Braham said. "He's very competitive. Anything you can say, help out gesture-wise on the field, he's willing to do it."
But it's not as easy for him as it is for Anderson or Takeo Spikes or Jon Kitna.
"That's not my style, but, hey," Dillon said. "I'll say or do whatever it takes to win. If it takes me making commitments with my teammates, then that's what I have to do."
He thinks it worked. Anderson thinks it worked. He thought Sunday was the quickest and toughest the Bengals came off the line all season.
"He went up to each man personally and I think people took that personally, not that it wasn't already personal," said rookie left tackle Levi Jones. "Anytime a guy like that comes up and says 'We need to go, we need to do this,' coming from him, plus he doesn't say much anyway, coming from him, it makes you want to step up to the plate. When he does, everybody listens."
Anderson felt terrible during the bye Sunday watching running backs like Priest Holmes and Jamal Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson go for 130, 140 yards, knowing Dillon was mired seventh in the league with just one big game (164 yards against the Colts) under his belt.
"Guys made a commitment to the running game," Anderson said. "I told him his talk would mean a lot. I told him, 'You know it's going to mean something.'"
The numbers said it did with 30 carries, his most in more than a year, and 138 yards, which means he now has three 100-yard games this season, one less than he had all last year.
He might not be making a weekly appeal, but the presence is now there.
"Them boys and me," said Dillon, we're going to be strong in our commitment all the way to the end of the season. Do or die."