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For Dillon, Patriots, it's a win-win

NFL champs are happy and so is their new rusher
New England Patriots running back Corey Dillon, averaging 4.3 yards per carry over his career, has gained 417 yards in 84 carries, averaging 5.1 yards.Chuck Burton / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As New England running back Corey Dillon headed toward the Gillette Stadium parking lot after the Patriots had beaten the Miami Dolphins for their record-setting 19th straight victory Sunday, he decided to have a little fun with someone who'd just asked him what it felt like to finally play on a winning team after all those years of losing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"Cincinnati? I didn't play for Cincinnati," he smiled. "Cincinnati? Who played in Cincinnati?"

Dillon, a Seattle native, indeed did play in Cincinnati for the first seven productive and often frustrating seasons of his career. At 6 feet 1 and 225 pounds, Dillon is one of only four NFL backs to gain at least 1,000 yards in his first six seasons, is the leading rusher in franchise history and gained 278 yards against Denver in a memorable 2000 game. But after sharing the running load last season under Coach Marvin Lewis, Dillon made it clear that he wanted out, and the Bengals accommodated him.

The Patriots made him their marquee offseason acquisition, giving up a second-round draft pick for Dillon, who was a second-round pick from the University of Washington in 1997.

Dillon, who suffered a groin injury last year that cut into his carries (138) and yardage (513), has been rejuvenated as the featured back for the Patriots (4-0). The whining is down, the yards are up and his teammates have welcomed him.

"It's just stating the obvious; he's a great back," said Patriots tight end Christian Fauria. "I'd heard all the stuff people had said about him in the past, but when we got him, I decided I wasn't going to judge him either way and find out for myself. As far as I'm concerned, he's been nothing but good for us, on the field, in the locker room. He's been a real positive guy. He runs hard, and I think guys respect that more than anything. You can't tell anything about a guy from the way he walks or talks, but you can when they play, and this man plays hard."

Dillon, averaging 4.3 yards per carry over his career, has gained 417 yards in 84 carries, averaging 5.1 yards. Most of his yardage has been gained running between the tackles, and many have come with second effort.

"He's such a tough guy," said right tackle Tom Ashworth. "He's hard to bring down, just a real solid running back. As an offensive {grv}lineman, you like to think you're giving them a decent hole to run through. Sometimes the creases aren't as big as you like, but he doesn't need much, and knowing there's a guy back there like that, it makes our jobs a lot easier. I definitely thought he could help us when he got here. He's a great guy, and he fits right in."

While Dillon had done much of the same for the Bengals, he spoke up about his frustration with the constant losing, often criticizing management. After his third season there, he told a Seattle radio station that he'd "rather flip burgers" than play for the Bengals.

Still, in 2001, when he was eligible to become a free agent, owner Mike Brown made it known he had no intention of letting Dillon go, saying he was prepared to match any offer Dillon got. Brown, known as among the more penurious owners in the league, signed him to a five-year, $26-million deal.

But money never bought Dillon happiness, and he started making noise about wanting to leave last October, even as the Bengals were enjoying something of a resurgence under Lewis. When the Bengals stumbled down the stretch, finishing 8-8 and out of the postseason, Dillon knew his days were numbered. After the team's final loss at home against Cleveland, he threw his cleats, shoulder pads and helmet into the stands, an apt metaphor for his burning desire to get out of town.

The Patriots knew they were taking a chance on Dillon, but wanted to upgrade their running game and get more balance into their offense.

As a youngster growing up in a tough Seattle neighborhood known as the Central District, Dillon had a string of arrests as a juvenile, including a conviction for selling cocaine to a Seattle undercover officer that got him nine months of probation and 10 days in a juvenile detention center. Dillon has always insisted that he was "guilty by association," and told the Boston Globe in May that he was "a victim of certain circumstances."

"And that stuck with me a long time. I wasn't the one selling it. . . .," he told the Globe. "Back in those days, they're not trying to hear too much of 'Oh, is this yours? You with him? It's obvious you know something about it.' The reason I got charged was because I wouldn't tell."

He attended three junior colleges before arriving at the University of Washington, where he stayed for one spectacular season that included a school record 1,555 yards (he had 222 in one quarter against San Jose State) and 22 touchdowns. Dillon declared for the 1997 draft and thought he was going to be taken with the 10th overall selection by New Orleans. Instead, his troubled past likely was the reason the Bengals were able to get him with the 43rd overall pick.

There were several off-the-field incidents in Cincinnati, including a DWI conviction in Seattle after his rookie year that led to two years' probation, and a charge of fourth-degree assault in 2000 when he allegedly struck his wife, Desiree, during an argument in their car. Dillon said he was defending himself, and the charges eventually were dropped.

Over the years, Dillon developed a reputation in Cincinnati as a frequent complainer, though he has insisted he simply was frustrated over losing. Another concern for the Patriots was the pounding he has endured over the years.

In his first six seasons, he averaged 288 carries, 1,253 yards and seven touchdowns, and will turn 30 on Oct. 24, an age when most running backs are on the downward slope of their careers.

That has not been the case so far. Although Dillon did twist an ankle Sunday against the Dolphins, both he and Coach Bill Belichick said that would not keep him from playing Sunday against the 3-1 Seattle Seahawks. Just as significantly, Dillon has been a model citizen on a team that demands it.

"Corey has played exactly as we had expected," Belichick said earlier this week. "He's a strong, physical runner. He's prepared, he's disciplined and he works extremely hard. Football is important to him, and he wants to do everything he can to succeed."

How important was very obvious after the Patriots' first victory of the season, a nationally televised 27-24 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts on a night he gained 86 yards on 15 carries in his New England debut.

"This is what I've been looking for my whole career," he said. "Playing with a bunch of guys who will play until the end and know how to win. I guess some people thought I was old and I can't play any more. That was the word. But I can still play. Before I even got traded here I used to watch them and I liked the way they played well as a team. They just know how to win."