Patriots' careful decision to sign RB Dillon has already paid off
Posted: Monday October 11, 2004 9:24AM; Updated: Monday October 11, 2004 11:58AM
FOXBORO, Mass. -- The Patriots knew a day like this would come. The passing game would be taken away, almost totally, and they'd need a workhorse back to win the game for them. That's why they made the decision to pay a second-round pick for Corey Dillon in the offseason and to convince him that to be a part of something this good was worth him taking a $1.55-million pay cut this year.
You'll look at the score -- New England 24, Miami 10 -- yawn and say, easy time for the Patriots to get the record 19th straight win. Well, yawning is justified, because it was a lousy game. But the Patriots played without three of their five receivers -- Deion Branch and Troy Brown (hurt) and Bethel Johnson (coaching decision, probably because he didn't practice with the intensity Bill Belichick wanted to see last week) -- leaving Kevin Kasper, signed Tuesday, to play about a third of the downs Sunday. And Tom Brady got manhandled. He took some stitches to the face and didn't complete a ball in the second half. That's why Dillon was so important to this game. Rushing 18 times for 94 yards against one of the stingiest defenses in football gave New England some semblance of a running game, and thus some semblance of an offense.
I exchanged e-mails with my Internet buddy, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, in the offseason, and he was bemoaning the loss of Antowain Smith. Simmons thought he was reliable, never fumbled, was egoless and the Patriots would miss him. I like Smith, but in his three New England seasons he rarely got the yards that weren't there. He rushed for 4.0, 3.9 and 3.5 yards a carry, in that descending order, over three seasons. As much as Charlie Weis likes to run the ball, I thought they could do better. As did the Patriots. Dillon was 29, had rushed for 8,061 yards, 4.3 yards per rush, and had 28 100-yard games in a star-crossed career in Cincinnati. He was a baby at times. He wanted out of Bengaldom.
Belichick and his vice president of player personnel, Scott Pioli, arranged to meet Dillon at a Marriott Hotel near the Hartford airport in early April. They wanted to keep it private, in case the thing didn't work out. I talked to Dillon about it, and he said they asked him about every untoward incident in his life, going back to trouble he got into as a kid in Seattle.
"They did a thorough investigation on me,'' he said. "We went over all the incidents, and if I was wrong, I told them I was wrong. And there were times I was wrong. I can admit it. But I think some of the things I did were magnified because for a long time in Cincinnati I was the only guy everyone looked at."
And so New England, flush with draft choices, traded the 56th overall pick, late in the second round, for Dillon, who the team knew might be just a one- or two-year fix at running back. And maybe less, because he was coming off a bad groin injury last year and because how do you really know a player until he's in your locker room?
Dillon felt that. He knew he had to prove he wanted to be here. That's why he slashed his 2004 salary from $3.3 million to $1.75 million, which was a prerequisite for the Patriots making the deal.
"It's hard to explain how I felt after a while in Cincinnati,'' he said. "It's tough having everyone always come to you to explain everything that happens with the team. I needed someone to feed off of, to get energy. I couldn't feed off myself. And I just felt like, What's the point of sitting here, making all this money, if I wasn't happy? I wanted to be happy as a person and a player. I'd look around at other teams sometimes and think, what if?''
So far, so good. Belichick told me last week he's been a team guy all the way. "He's done everything we've asked, and he's fit right in with the team,'' he said.
I was skeptical about the new Dillon in the summer, and he still has to keep his nose clean for longer than five weeks to convince the football world he's a team player. But something happened in the Buffalo game eight days ago that really impressed me. Midway through the first quarter, New England had the ball on its 20, first and 10. The Patriots lined up with one back, Dillon, and max-protection of Tom Brady because the Bills had been sending the kitchen sink at him. At the snap of the ball, outside linebacker Jeff Posey came flying around the left tackle. Dillon stepped up, dove at Posey's knees, and sent him careening head over heels. Then Dillon got up, ran further into the flat, and took a swing pass from Brady. Five yards past the line, he stiff-armed linebacker London Fletcher, half-carrying him for a few yards. Dillon gained 13 yards on the play. I thought it was one of the more amazing plays I've seen this year, even though it made exactly zero highlight shows.
"I've been doing that my whole career,'' Dillon said. "It's new to people who don't know me, but that's what a good running back's supposed to do.''
Dillon's on pace for a 1,668-yard season, but you never know what you're going to get with the Patriots on offense. He might end up with 1,800. He might end up with 1,100. That's assuming the lower leg injury he suffered late in the win over Miami is no big deal. He had a 36-yard, drive-sustaining run Sunday that no other Patriot back under Belichick ever could have made, looking shifty and shrugging off two tacklers on his trip up the left sideline. The guy's still got it.
"I don't care about the stats,'' he said after the game. "As long as we win, I can go home and sleep peacefully. Tonight, that is what I'm going to do."
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (4-0). After Arizona, Buffalo and Miami, here comes the meat of the sked: Seattle, Jets, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, the final two on the road.
2. Philadelphia (4-0). Anyone else think it's strange that the hot-blooded manager/coach, Larry Bowa, is a failure in this passionate town, and the cool-as-a-cucumber manager/coach, Andy Reid, is a big success?
3. Indianapolis (4-1). You know what's sad? Peyton Manning has never played a regular-season game in The Black Hole, and won't until his 10th year in the league, 2007.
4. Seattle (3-1). Until being strafed by Marc Bulger in a virtuoso performance, this was the No. 1 defense in the league. For the moment, I'm going to stay faithful to Grant Wistrom and the boys.
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
5. Denver (4-1). Were it not for a Quentin Griffin red-zone fumble at Jacksonville three weeks ago, the Flying Shanahans would be pitching a perfect game.
6. New York Jets (4-0). Help me with this team. I actually thought they'd lose to Buffalo, and they needed a last-minute field goal to win 16-14. I guess I still need to be convinced.
7. Atlanta (4-1). I am now officially worried about Mike Vick's adaptation to the West Coast Offense.
8. Pittsburgh (4-1). BigBen's 3-0, and from the highlights, he looks like one tough hombre. BillCowher's kind of guy.
9. Minnesota (3-1). Randy Moss scores scores twice in what will be his only game ever in Houston as a Viking.
11. Detroit (3-1). Heck of a win, Moochmen. What was so impressive was the defensive performance in Atlanta, and the four-quarter harassment of Vick.
12. New York Giants (4-1). There aren't many more amazing stats than this in the first five weeks of the NFL season: Tiki Barber is averaging 163.4 yards from scrimmage per game. Priest Holmes -- 122.6.
13. Jacksonville (3-2). How the mighty are falling.
14. Baltimore (3-2). At some point before January, it would be nice to see the first-round quarterback make a play.
15. Kansas City (1-3). I don't count them out yet.
THE AWARD SECTION
Offensive Player of the Week
Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper. He is totally out of control. He's on pace for 52 touchdown passes and 5,364 yards, both of which would shatter the DanMarino records. He was 36-of-50 for 396 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in the overtime win over Houston. I don't know how you can be hotter than this dude right now.
Defensive Player of the Week
Baltimore S Ed Reed, who made the momentum-turning play of the Sunday-nighter and had 10 tackles to boot. Reed took the ball off the ready-to-throw arm of Mark Brunell, forced a fumble, picked it up, and ran 22 yards for a touchdown. That qualifies as offense for the Ravens, who were trailing 10-0 at that point. Suitably sparked, Baltimore came back to win, 17-10.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Miami WR/PR/KR/K Wes Welker. During pregame warmups in Foxboro, Miami kicker Olindo Mare strained a calf muscle and couldn't play. In came backup wide receiver Welker, who, in four years at Texas Tech, attempted one extra point and had it blocked. In this game, he booted the opening kickoff to the New England 11, returned the first Miami kickoff 27 yards, returned a punt 14 yards, kicked a perfect extra point, and kicked a 29-yard field goal. Welker isn't special teams player of the week. He's special teams player of the year. When's the last time a guy kicked off, kicked placements, returned kicks, returned punts, played receiver and made a special-teams tackle ... in one game? Maybe GinoCappellettii. Fittingly, he was here Sunday, doing the game on radio for the Patriots.
Coach of the Week
Detroit coach Steve Mariucci. Interesting matchup in Atlanta. No one knows how to defend Mariucci better than Jim Mora, his former defensive coordinator in Detroit. And no one knows how to attack Mora better than Mariucci. For the Lions to win a road game against an unbeaten and highly impressive team is not just a sign that the players Matt Millen is getting are finally players, but a sign that they're being molded and taught how to win by Mariucci.
FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
The Steelers have two defensive players who are one letter apart.
Chris Hoke is a backup defensive tackle. Chris Hope is a starting safety.
Chris Hoke, who is white, grew up in the O.C. (Orange County, Calif., for squares like me) and went to Brigham Young. Chris Hope, who is black, grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., and went to Florida State.
They do have one thing in common. They've both been on missions. Chris Hoke went on a Mormon mission for Brigham Young to Belgium. Chris Hope went on a football mission for Florida State to win a national championship.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"Sean Salisbury? Are you kidding me? He couldn't throw the ball in the ocean if he was standing on the beach!"
-- HBO and CBS analyst Dan Marino to Adam Sandler on the set of the remake of The Longest Yard, after Sandler told him he'd used Salisbury, the former Viking quarterback and current ESPN analyst, to help him learn how to play quarterback in the movie.
STAT OF THE WEEK
The Patriots last lost 379 days ago.
ENJOYABLE/AGGRAVATING TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
A slice of subway life, Oct. 6, 2004:
I'm on the subway, the Lexington Avenue line, around 9 a.m., on the way to HBO Studios for Inside the NFL. There are four girls, I would guess 17ish, maybe senior-in-high-school age, in the center of this very crowded car. One girl is applying her morning makeup. One girl is holding Makeup Girl's shoulders steady. One girl is holding the mirror. One girl is watching.
Makeup Girl says: "I am soooo pale!'' She spends three stops, my length of time on the train, applying the makeup, and just before I get off, Mirror Girl says: "You're a little white here, a little streaky.'' Makeup Girl moans, agrees, evens out the color.
Behind them is an advertisement for Manhattan Mini-Storage, which shows a man sitting on a narrow chair, eating a plate of steaming pasta with a pained look on his face. The plate is sitting right in his lap. The ad shouts: "Imagine having room for a table instead of burning your crotch!"
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think it is amazing enough that the San Diego Chargers are 3-2. What's more amazing is they're averaging 28 points a game. Drew Brees, à la JonKitna in 2003 in Cincinnati, is showing what happens when a man with his back pressed firmly against a wall rises up and plays the best football of his pro career. San Diego has Atlanta, Carolina, Oakland and New Orleans before its bye. There's no way the Chargers could be 5-4 and dreaming of the playoffs by then, is there? The one thing I recall Marty Schottenheimer telling me in training camp this summer is that he'd have a tougher team this year, and I know that scoring in the thirties against the Jaguars requires some physical play by a tough offensive line.
2. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of the NFL weekend:
a. Chant from small portion of Gillette Stadium with 5:15 left in the first half: "Yankees suck! Yankees suck!''
b. The Brentson Buckner lip balm/Visa commercial is the worst football commercial in years. Maybe ever. It makes no sense, people.
c. Twenty-six unanswered points after halftime and a stunning Seattle loss sort of took a bit of the steam out of the Pats-Seahawks showdown in Foxboro this week, didn't it?
d. Giants are allowing 14.5 points per game. That's better than Baltimore and Jacksonville.
e. Doesn't it look like the Colts, on offense, are playing 13 on 9?
Ben Roethlisberger completed 16 of 21 passes for 231 yards, one TD and one INT in Pittsburgh's 34-23 win over Cleveland.
f. I don't see how Bill Cowher puts Tommy Maddox back in the lineup when his elbow's healed. BenRoethlisberger's too good. That's no green kid.
g. Brian Griese, reborn. That's what a strange week it was in the NFL.
h. Have you ever seen a coach as excited as Mike Martz was when his team tied the game in the fourth quarter at Seattle?
i. Tim Rattay shouldn't be given a hall pass for life for throwing for 430 against Arizona, but he should have a legitimate one-season chance to be the 49ers quarterback of the future. That's what rebuilding years are for.
j. Alge Crumpler reminds me of Mark Bavaro, the way he drags tacklers for three or four yards after catches.
3. I think I can't understand the few voices of outrage that Jamal Lewis got "only'' two weeks for pleading guilty to the lesser felony count in his Atlanta drug trial. Two games is the baseball equivalent of 20, and the fine associated with PaulTagliabue's whacking is $761,000. And people, this crime occurred before Jamal Lewis ever wore a Ravens' uniform. Were his attorneys the type to fight this thing forever, he might have won an appeal against the league, saying what jurisdiction did it have over him, just because a team in the NFL chose to draft him?
4. I think -- no, I'm pretty sure I know -- that there are three bidders for the Thursday/Saturday post-Thanksgiving TV package I reported on in SportsIllustrated a couple of weeks ago. I know two of the suitors: TNT and Spike TV. TNT is even talking to potential analysts. In case you haven't heard about this, the NFL, which is negotiating with the networks quietly right now to extend its current TV deal, likely will get a deal done sometime this winter. One of the interesting possibilities for the TV deal is a late-season package of games, likely on cable, that would extend the league's prime-time window past Sunday and Monday night games. This idea of taking eight pretty good games out of the 256-game package wouldn't be in conflict with the league's stated policy of leaving high school Fridays and college Saturdays alone. If there's any new wrinkle to the TV deal, I expect this would be it.
5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. You ask about the intelligence of baseball fans in New England? Well, you didn't. But I'll tell you anyway. Last Thursday night, after a day at Patriots' camp, I sat down at the bar of the Capital Grille in downtown Providence. I ordered the Delmonico steak. While I waited, I watched the last three innings of Braves-Astros on the TV at the bar. Atlanta reliever John Smoltz came to the plate to start the 10th inning, and he lined a single to right field that landed just in front of right fielder Lance Berkman. The bartender and a waiter happened to be watching. Bartender says: "The right fielder's playing so deep! Who's he think's up, Chipper Jones?'' Waiter says: "I'll tell you what I bet happened. He's playing deep because Hampton started for the Braves today. He never adjusted. You've gotta play Hampton deep. He's got home run power.''
b. The greatest T-shirt up here is the one with Passion of the Christ lookalike JohnnyDamon's scraggly head in the middle of the shirt, with the letters WWJDD above and the words, "What Would Johnny Damon Do?'' below.
c. In one hour on ESPN last Thursday evening, there were ads for an erectile dysfunction pill, a genital herpes drug and the sex-sex-sex TV show DesperateHousewives. Anyone ever wonder what happens to 13-year-old boys watching TV these days? One our neighbors told me the other day her fifth-grade son had all kinds of questions when he saw, in early prime time, an ED pill TV ad that warned viewers that if erections lasted longer than four hours, you should see a doctor. I must live in Prude America. I just think we're pushing the envelope ridiculously far right now.
d. Cell phones are just far too prevalent in this society. It's maddening to hear conversations of strangers when you're trying to work, think, rest, talk, anything.
e. What a great, great story about the Cubs and Red Sox in this week's SI by Tom Verducci, who really captured with some perspective the incredibly wrenching stories of both franchises being five outs away from a World Series meeting. Proud to work at the same place with you, buddy.
f. Coffeenerdness: This is a week old. I forgot to report it last week. But last week at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, at a non-Starbucks espresso place, a man followed me to the counter and said, "Large Milky Way latte.'' The attendant said there was no such thing as a Milky Way latte. The man said, "Maybe I got that wrong ... Snickers? Is there a Snickers latte?'' The attendant said, "Sir, we just have plain lattes, or lattes with several kinds of syrup in them.'' He said thank you, and he walked away.
g. Way to handle a pitching staff, Ron Gardenhire. Geez. Is Juan Rincon still out there on the mound?
6. I think Arthur Blank, the Atlanta owner, might have unwittingly swung the balance of power in the NFC this offseason. I wrote a big piece about his pursuit of Oakland free-agent defensive tackle Rod Coleman in the mag this week, but didn't get across in full how much of a power broker this guy is turning into. When Blank met with Coleman on the third day of free-agency over dinner last March, he told him: "I want Atlanta to be the mecca for free-agents.'' It might not last, because free-agency money doesn't last. But he beat out the Giants and the Raiders for Coleman, who has been one of the Falcons' five most important players as they've risen to first place in the NFC South. As long as Blank has the right people (and I count Tim Ruskell and Ron Hill, excellent scouts, among those people) advising him how to spend his money, he ought to be a negotiating force to be reckoned with.
7. I think it was really sad to watch Mark Brunell throw all those gopher balls Sunday night. By gopher balls, I mean balls intended for gophers. So many of his throws against Baltimore were short, some of them ridiculously so. Never thought I'd say this so early in the year, but it might be time to warm PatrickRamsey up in the bullpen.
8. I think I'm stunned the Redskins are three games behind the Giants on Oct. 11. Imagine how Daniel Snyder feels. And Joe Gibbs. Bet you $100 he hasn't been to bed yet after that debacle.
9. I think I wonder how Jim Haslett can possibly save his job.
10. I think the guy who won't get any credit coming out of Week 5 but should get a bushel is David Carr. I know Minnesota's a sieve on defense right now, but Carr looks like he's coming of age as a quarterback.
WHO I LIKE TONIGHT, AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS
Weird. The Green Bay-Tennessee loser will be 1-4 after tonight. That makes it, basically a playoff game in the middle of October. I think Green Bay will play defense a little better tonight, Ahman Green will clutch the ball tightly and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will harass Steve McNair in his best pass-rushing performance (some would say his only pass-rushing performance) of the year. Pack, 23-14.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.