- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Off the field, Corey Dillon usually moves slowly, carefully on the feet that earn his living. Last week, however, he was walking with a sense of urgency in the bowels of Gillette Stadium.
A television crew was waiting for a prearranged interview, but New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had moved up practice time. Dillon, with only socks on his feet, shuffled briskly through the visiting locker room and relaxed in an awaiting chair. The gifted running back had only five minutes -- not a second more -- to explain the complex series of emotions he had experienced in moving from one of the worst franchises in the NFL to one viewed widely as the best.
"They win here -- bottom line," Dillon said. "They're proven winners. As players, they play well together as one unit, and that's kind of sold the deal for me."
When the NFL season opens on Thursday night -- the Super Bowl champion Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts -- a great deal of attention will be paid to Dillon. It isn't often, almost a fluke, when such a great player in his prime lands with such a great team.
San Francisco receiver Terrell Owens, miserable with the 49ers, finds himself a member of the Philadelphia Eagles this year. Cornerback Deion Sanders went from the 6-10 Atlanta Falcons after the 1993 season and won a Super Bowl with San Francisco in 1994. The Miami Dolphins played in the Super Bowl at the end of the 1982 season and were able to draft quarterback Dan Marino in the 1983 NFL draft. Marino, who was good from the start, would become the league's most prolific passer ever. And now, the team with two Super Bowl titles in three years, a team with a modest running game last season, has one of history's best backs.
The Patriots got solid production from Antowain Smith when they won their first Super Bowl at the end of the 2001 season. He carried 287 times for 1,157 yards (a 4.0 average) and scored 12 touchdowns. Last year the 31-year-old's production dropped; he was the Patriots' leading rusher with a paltry 182 carries for 642 yards (3.5) and only three touchdowns. The emergence of quarterback Tom Brady and his mastery of a West Coast-style offense were enough to carry the team.
Now, giving the two-time Super Bowl MVP a weapon like Dillon hardly seems fair.
"Too many weapons?" asked offensive tackle Matt Light, laughing. "Well, we'll see how it all pans out. Obviously, we were able to get the job done without having a great running back. Every week we prepare to do a better job in the running game -- and having Corey should definitely enhance that."
Dillon's numbers, particularly in a dubious venue like Cincinnati, were remarkable. In seven seasons he gained 8,061 yards -- making him the Bengals' all-time leading rusher. He holds 18 team records, including the 278-yard effort against the Broncos in 2000, the second-highest single-game total in league history. Dillon became the fourth runner to open his career with six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons -- Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin were the first three -- but the streak ended last year when a groin muscle and a new coaching regime limited him to just 541 yards.
Dillon, who has never taken great pains to mask his unhappiness in Cincinnati, was thrilled when he was traded to the Patriots. It only cost them a second-round pick, which the Bengals used on Maryland defensive back Madieu Williams.
It was a curious marriage: Dillon, branded as a terminal malcontent and the Patriots, who under Belichick are the epitome of team. Dillon -- who once said he would rather "flip burgers" than play for the Bengals -- insists what was seen as a bad attitude was actually a burning desire to win. When he was asked if his reputation in Cincinnati had caused him to compensate in New England by trying harder to be a team player, the soft-spoken running back leaned forward and started talking more forcefully.
"Man, I have always been a team player," Dillon said. "I think people kind of misunderstood my competitiveness with me being an outcast. Bottom line, I just wanted to win football games. And nobody seemed to grasp onto that -- 'Why is this young man unhappy here? Is he the problem, or is the problem something else?'
"Basically, the point of seven years: I got tired of losing."
How different is the atmosphere in New England? In Dillon's seven seasons with the Bengals, the team won a total of 34 games. By comparison, the Patriots won 31 alone in their two Super Bowl seasons. This is roughly comparable to escaping from seven years of solitary confinement and a bread-and-water diet and landing in the penthouse of the Four Seasons Hotel.
Bottom line, Dillon says he wants only one thing: A Super Bowl ring.
"That's what I'm here for," he said. "I think I've got a good opportunity to fulfill that dream. I like my chances here."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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