For the Cincinnati Bengals, a telling moment came last Sunday, and it came thousands of miles away in a game that had nothing to do with them. As New England Patriots running back Corey Dillon walked off the field at Gillette Stadium after a win over Seattle, a voice blared from a slew of Seahawks players walking in the opposite direction.
"Hey man!" a player yelled. "Congratulations on making it out of Cincinnati."
Dillon didn't even flinch.
But you get the feeling the Bengals should.
Players aren't supposed to be saying that about the Bengals anymore. But the supposed Cincinnati anthem of "newfound respect" and ditching the "loser" tag hasn't exactly proliferated through NFL locker rooms. Instead, Dillon's success in New England – combined with the Bengals' larger-than-anticipated struggles – might be giving Cincinnati its worst rap ever.
As it stands, Dillon is on pace to rush for 1,670 yards and easily has become the most important new wrinkle in the Patriots' offense – a punishing running dimension the team lacked in its Super Bowl run last season. Meanwhile, the Bengals are struggling under a rookie quarterback and have the worst rushing defense in the NFL.
What has been striking to the Patriots is that Dillon is nothing like the selfish, corrosive player they heard whispers about in Cincinnati. After the win over Seattle, one reporter tried to bait him into talking about the strained relationship between Patriots receiver Bethel Johnson and coach Bill Belichick. He balked.
"I don't want anything to do with that stuff," Dillon said. "I'm not getting into any of that."
Since arriving in Foxboro, Dillon has had the business acumen of a Microsoft executive, staying as patient as ever (though sometimes bland) with the New England media and impressing teammates with his work ethic. His biggest praise has come from opposing coaches, who see a player on film who adds a breakaway dimension New England lacked with Antowain Smith last season.
"Not to take anything away from [Patriots running back Kevin] Faulk and the guys who were there – I thought they did a good job. But [Dillon] is one of the premier running backs in the league," said New York Jets coach Herman Edwards, whose team will face Dillon on Sunday in Foxboro. "He is a big, powerful man."
To be fair, it's easy for the champagne commentary to flow now, with Dillon putting up good numbers and the Patriots riding a 20-game winning streak. It might be a larger sign of mettle to stay quiet during hard times. But Dillon wasn't the first to leave the Bengals with a divisive reputation (Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes comes to mind). And it's hard to ignore the lingering doubts about the Bengals' reputation.
Said one Jets player: "Just another guy who looks better when he takes off that [Cincinnati] uniform and puts on a different one. That's not new."
With the Bengals staring at a likely 1-5 start after Monday night's game against the Broncos, it's hard to argue.
• Teams in the market for a talented but disgruntled receiver this offseason might want to start collecting tapes of Chicago Bears wideout David Terrell. One of Terrell's former teammates – who remains close to several Bears players – told us this week the receiver wants out in a bad, bad way, despite being under contract through the 2005 season.
"He'd rather be anywhere else," the player said. "The way they all hate on him [in the Chicago media], I would, too."
The mercurial former No. 1 draft pick from Michigan (selected eighth overall in 2001) is upset with Bears quarterback Jonathan Quinn, who has stepped in for the injured Rex Grossman. The two didn't appear to be on the same page in last week's 13-10 loss to Washington, when Quinn went 10-of-22 and completed only one pass to Terrell for 10 yards. Highly criticized for his lack of consistent production (1,180 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in three-plus seasons), Terrell apparently is unhappy about being a scapegoat while having less-than-distinguished quarterbacks. That group has included the likes of Shane Matthews, Jim Miller, Chris Chandler and Kordell Stewart.
The knock on Terrell, who has two 100-yard receiving performances in five games this season, isn't talent. It's that he loses focus and doesn't push himself. Some also have criticized his cockiness since he arrived in the league. The latter brings to mind a story related to us last week by New England quarterback Tom Brady, who teamed with Terrell at the University of Michigan. Brady and former Michigan tight end Aaron Shea, who is now with the Cleveland Browns, prank-called Terrell and got a taste of his self-assured nature.
"When he was a freshman, Aaron and I pretended we were reporters and we called him," Brady said. "We were saying Oh David, you've just got so much ability. What are your goals? What are your dreams?' Eventually, he took the bait. He was like, I want to be the best receiver of all time. I want to be the greatest.' He talked about winning a national championship and the Heisman. He had no idea it was me and Aaron. You should have heard him. We had him going for like, 15, 20 minutes about how good he was going to be. It was the funniest thing."
• While we're on the subject of scapegoats, coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't deserve all that blame going around in Miami. Rookie general manager Rick Spielman is going to have to shoulder some heavy responsibility, especially now that the trading deadline has passed and we watched four wide receivers get shuffled around the league. Sort of makes you wonder even more about the preseason trade that sent defensive end Adewale Ogunleye to the Chicago Bears for receiver Marty Booker. Neither player has looked great in their new homes, but Spielman clearly could have paid a cheaper price had he waited.
Compound that with the other highly scrutinized moves made under Spielman's watch, and the panic moves sure seem to pile up fast. Miami traded a second-round pick for quarterback A.J. Feeley rather than signing someone from the plethora of veterans available. The Dolphins also traded a third-round pick for running back Lamar Gordon, plus a fourth-round pick to move up in the draft for overrated offensive lineman Vernon Carey. Oh, and let's not forget the five-year, $30-million extension (including $12 million in bonuses) given to wide receiver Chris Chambers in the offseason. Chambers is averaging 8.1 yards per catch this year, more than 7 yards less than his career average entering this season.
• Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis begins his two-game suspension this week against the Buffalo Bills, and the Ravens will be starting Chester Taylor in his place. While most people are expecting Taylor to get plowed by Buffalo's stout run defense (fifth best in the NFL), one league personnel director wasn't so pessimistic. Instead, he likened Taylor to sudden Minnesota sensation Mewelde Moore, who has 369 yards from scrimmage in his last two starts. Both players carved out impressive college careers at mid-majors - Moore at Tulane and Taylor at Toledo - and both saw their draft stock tumble because of a lack of size.
"[Taylor] is a better stopgap than people are giving him credit for," the personnel director said. "Nobody thought much of Mewelde Moore a month ago, either. I don't want to say Taylor is going to have that kind of impact; he won't have the players around him Moore does. He's not that receiving threat, either. [But] he can make a cut and probably has even a little better speed than Moore. Buffalo is a bad draw, but you might be surprised."
• That shoulder injury suffered by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Brown last week apparently raised some eyebrows in the NFL scouting ranks. The fear about Brown, when he entered the draft, was that his upright posture would leave him vulnerable to big hits. Yet all Brown has done is make his doubters look foolish for passing on him. Yes – it's a sore point. One scout bristled this week when we suggested pointing out Brown's injury was simply justification for sour grapes.
"I'll take my grapes," he said. "You take the guy who will need surgically repaired shoulders."
• It might be a bit further down the road, but the Dallas Cowboys are going to have to get backup quarterback Drew Henson some snaps in live action. Not because he's better than Vinny Testaverde, but simply to get a feel for his future potential. It behooves the Cowboys to find out as much as they can about Henson this season, since they own Buffalo's first-round pick in the 2005 draft. That's likely to be a top-10 selection. And with two first-rounders, Dallas will have the luxury of spending a top choice in a draft that has the potential to be top-heavy in quarterbacks.
Upon further review
Shame on me for writing off the Boston Red Sox in my Oct. 17 piece "'Alive' and well" on the New England Patriots. I wrote that the pressure on the Patriots was bound to "amp up once the Red Sox are out of the MLB playoffs." Three days later, I was sitting in a Manhattan bar regretting such a blasé prediction. To all the readers who emailed their displeasure, cheers to your Sox. And a special tip of the cap to the industrious reader who managed to dig up my personal email address and send me a one-word lecture: "Moron."