On April 19, 2004 the New England Patriots obtained accomplished but discontented RB Corey Dillon from the Cincinnati Bengals. To do so they traded a second-round draft pick to Cincinnati that had previously been obtained from Miami (the Bengals used it to select Maryland FS Madieu Williams, who moved into the starting lineup as a rookie but had problems with injuries during his four years with the club).
The 29-year-old Dillon (he turned 30 during the 2004 season) was Cincinnati’s all-time rushing leader, having gained 8061 yards over the course of seven seasons, and was selected to the Pro Bowl three times. He further held a total of 18 franchise records at the time that included most rushing yards in a season (1435). At 6’1” and 225 pounds he had the size to be a punishing runner between the tackles while also possessing speed and elusiveness.
Dillon, who played collegiately at the Univ. of Washington, was originally chosen by the Bengals in the second round of the 1997 NFL draft and came on strong in the second half of his rookie year, gaining 933 of his 1129 rushing yards and scoring 8 of 10 TDs in the last eight games, highlighted by a 246-yard, four-touchdown performance in his fifth contest as a starter. It was the first of six consecutive seasons reaching the thousand-yard rushing threshold. Along the way Dillon had two more 200-yard single-game performances, including a then-league record 278 against the Broncos in 2000.
Dillon began sharing the rushing duties with RB Rudi Johnson in 2003 and had been pushing for a trade, complaining that he should be carrying more of the load. Following a season-ending loss to the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, Dillon reportedly threw some of his equipment into the stands. He had further gotten into a public spat with OT Willie Anderson, calling him “a bum” on a sports radio show after the Pro Bowl tackle accused Dillon of being selfish at a point when the Bengals were still in playoff contention.
Reportedly, Coach Belichick laid down ground rules to Dillon prior to the trade being finalized. “We are very excited about Corey Dillon becoming a Patriot,” the coach said in reaction to the deal being completed. “Corey joins Kevin Faulk and our other very good backs to deepen an already competitive running back position.”
The Patriots had won two NFL Championships in the previous three years, including 2003, without a feature running back in an offense largely propelled by the passing of QB Tom Brady. Antowain Smith had been a stalwart, if plodding, ground gainer since arriving in 2001 and shared the duties with the more versatile Kevin Faulk in ’03, gaining 642 yards to Faulk’s 638, while Faulk caught 48 passes for 440 yards to Smith’s 92 yards on 14 receptions. The arrival of Dillon marked the end of the line in New England for the 32-year-old Smith.
Any concerns about Dillon and the wisdom of trading for him were resolved during an outstanding 2004 season. He started strong, with a 15-carry, 86-yard effort in an opening-week win over the Colts and followed with 158 yards on 32 attempts at Arizona the next week. He had four straight hundred-yard games as the Patriots got off to a 7-1 start and ended up with a total of nine such performances over the course of the season. Dillon ended up with a club-record 1635 rushing yards on 345 carries for an average gain of 4.7 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He gained another 292 yards in three playoff games, with 144 coming in a Divisional-level win over the Colts and 75 yards on 18 carries in the Super Bowl victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. Dillon was chosen to the Pro Bowl for the first time in three years and, moreover, proved to be a leader who fit well in New England’s team-first approach.
Dillon spent two more seasons with the Patriots, rushing for lesser totals of 733 and 812 yards, although scoring 12 and 13 TDs, respectively, in 2005 and ’06. He was hindered by a bad ankle in ’05 and showed increased signs of wear in 2006, when he began to lose playing time to rookie Laurence Maroney. Released in the offseason, he ultimately retired.
In his three years in New England, Dillon gained 3180 yards on 753 rushing attempts (4.2 avg.) with 37 TDs. He also caught 52 passes for 431 yards and another two scores (Kevin Faulk continued to be the preferred receiver out of the backfield in addition to being a change-of-pace runner). In eight postseason games, he rushed for 508 yards and four TDs and accumulated 12 pass receptions for 74 yards.