Friday, October 10, 2003

Losing Dillon could be gain

As stats fall, Bengals could do without RB's big salary

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The once unthinkable prospect of life without Corey Dillon has become a possibility for the Bengals.

Coach Marvin Lewis opened the door before the draft when he didn't rule out taking a running back in the second round and said team officials had talked about how many productive years Dillon has left.

Dillon's two early-season injuries haven't helped to quiet those discussions. He has been limited to 44 rushing attempts for 164 yards, and he could not finish three games in a row and was inactive for a fourth.

Plus, examination of his contract - he is in the third year of a five-year deal - shows releasing Dillon after this season would save the Bengals salary-cap space.

He is due to make a base salary of $3.3 million in 2004, plus a $100,000 workout bonus. The Bengals are still absorbing $2.1 million a year against the salary cap from the $10.5 million bonus paid Dillon when he signed May 11, 2001.

His base will rise to $3.85 million in 2005, not including the $100,000 workout bonus. He could earn another $250,000 in any of the final three seasons of the contract by rushing for 1,500 yards.

Even while absorbing the amortized signing bonus, the Bengals could save $1.2 million in 2004 and $1.75 million in 2005 without Dillon.

No member of the organization is saying publicly that Dillon would be let go or traded, but the numbers give the Bengals options they didn't have earlier.

Whispers inside the organization started to leak during training camp that February and March 2004 could be interesting months for the front office unless Dillon becomes an exemplary team player.

Dillon has said he wants to remain with the Bengals and is supportive of Lewis and the changes he has brought to the organization.

But even after Lewis was hired and had talked with him, Dillon was the only Bengals player under contract who did not attend the first voluntary veteran minicamp, held in April, and he was the only player to report late for training camp - albeit because of a travel hang-up. Dillon did attend the second voluntary minicamp in May.

As for the injuries, Dillon dismissed them as "fluke." He hyperextended a knee at Oakland in Week 2 and strained a groin muscle the next Sunday at home against the Steelers, an injury Dillon blamed on the loose Paul Brown Stadium natural grass field.

Dillon has rushed 1,771 times and has 184 receptions in 98 NFL games, and he says he is not slowing down in his seventh season. But other heavy-duty backs such as Eddie George, Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin have shown signs of age and wear in recent years.

"Let's not get this twisted. I'm healthy. I'm fine," Dillon said Sept. 22, the day after suffering the groin injury.

His streak of 52 consecutive starts was broken at Buffalo. He is supposed to be back for the Oct. 19 game against the Ravens, and a productive 11 games to close the season would help the Bengals - regardless of what they might have in mind for Dillon in the offseason.

In the meantime, third-year back Rudi Johnson played the second half against the Browns and started at Buffalo, rushing for 120 yards and one touchdown.

The list of probable unrestricted free agents at running back is slim, topped by Philadelphia's Duce Staley and Houston's Stacey Mack.

Clearly, the Bengals still need a healthy Dillon, but he will turn 29 on Oct. 24; 30 is considered old for an every-down NFL tailback.


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