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Bengals running back Corey Dillon showcased some of his best moves inside Bally Total Fitness in his hometown of Seattle this summer. Workout fiend Dillon, who gained 2,259 yards in his first two seasons, discovered it wasn't a good idea to stand still for more than a few seconds at Bally, or he would find himself beset by people who wanted to talk about the Bengals. "When you play for a 3-13 team you have to learn how to change the subject quickly or make a move and get out of there," says Dillon, who was drafted out of Washington in the second round in 1997 "It made me angry, because I didn't know what to tell people."
As it turns out, Dillon may be just the guy to turn around Cincinnati's fortunes. A chiseled 6'1", 225-pounder, he's a battering ram who craves collisions and plays with the kind of fervor that has given the Bengals some things they've been missing for 10 years: a player to build around and some swagger.
"We're rebuilding the personality and attitude of the team around Corey," says Cincinnati right tackle Willie Anderson. "When he's done in this league, he'll have redefined who the Bengals are, and he'll have done for power running what Barry Sanders did for open-field running."
In 1997 Dillon broke Jim Brown's NFL rookie single-game record, running for 246 yards on 39 carries in a game against the Oilers. After his first season, in which he rushed for 1,129 yards, Dillon told a reporter—jokingly, he says—that he wanted to run for 2,500 yards in '98. In print the remark came across as serious. "After that defenders looked at me like they wanted to kill me," he says.
They came close. Last year Dillon played with an assortment of injuries, including a sprained toe, a bad shoulder, a bruised back, a hip pointer and a kneecap that kept slipping out of place. Still, he gained 1,130 yards in 15 games and had a 4.3 yard average. This year he could become the 11th back in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. If he attains that number, the Bengals could climb out of the AFC Central cellar. "For us to do well, Corey has to be the focal point," says Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet. Coslet's thinking is that by controlling the clock with Dillon, the Bengals can minimize exposure to their weaker areas, which are essentially everything else.
In 1998, when Cincinnati went 3-13, the Bengals' defense ranked 28th and was last in the NFL in rushing yards and points allowed. In the first quarter Cincinnati was outscored 113-26. With their first-round draft pick, Oregon quarterback Akili Smith, and their top wideout, the chemistry-killing Carl Pickens, holding out, the Bengals will put their passing game in the hands of Jeff Blake, a sporadic thrower. Pickens, a free agent, has vowed never to play for Cincinnati again, but because the club slapped its franchise-player designation on him, other teams are wary about signing him since they would have to send the Bengals two first-round draft picks or some other agreed-upon compensation.
"I don't care how great Corey Dillon is," says Coslet, "if we're down 21 points in the second quarter or if we can't open any holes or keep defenses honest with our passing game, he won't be a factor. No runner in this league can do it all by himself."
Cincinnati will try to keep defenses off balance by spelling Dillon with the injury-prone Ki-Jana Carter. Still, Dillon will get the bulk of the work; in fact, the Bengals would like to use him 10 more times a game than they did in 1998, when he averaged 175 carries. He'll run behind a line that's so thin after injuries to prospective starters Brian DeMarco (shoulder) and Kevin Sargent (neck) that 366-pound Jamain Stephens, who was cut early in camp by the Steelers for being, well, fat, is getting a tryout. Cincinnati promptly issued Stephens jersey number 78, the same number worn by Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Muñoz.
Stephens will be assigned another number if he makes the roster, but the move was a fitting metaphor for what has happened to this team since its last Super Bowl appearance, in January 1989. "It's been ugly, real ugly," says Anderson, a first-round draft pick in '96. "It's embarrassing, too. I keep telling myself, We just can't be this damn bad."
The numbers don't lie. At 48-96 the Bengals have the second-worst record in the NFL this decade, better only than that of the Rams. Dillon may be something special, but he's got his work cut out for him.