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This was a hard decision, but it's worth it

He always ran hard.

That's the important thing to remember about Corey Dillon. Through bad times and worse times. Through pain and injury. Through just about everything but that one-too-many-losses defeat against Baltimore when he left the field in disgust with his team trailing, 37-0, and coach Bruce Coslet on his way out the door. Actually, even then Dillon ran hard. It was just that he ran off the field instead of on it that complicated things.

That's what makes the Patriots' decision to trade a second-round draft choice (No. 56) to the Cincinnati Bengals for the three-time Pro Bowl, six-time 1,000-yard rusher yesterday a brilliant move almost no matter how things turn out for Dillon in New England. It was brilliant because the Patriots were unlikely to draft anyone with that pick who'll be as productive as Dillon has proven to be. With only two years left on a contract he already has agreed to rework, the Patriots risk little either on their salary cap or with their emphasis on team. Dillon's behavior has not always seemed to exemplify team play, but if problems arise the Patriots can send him packing with virtually no cap implications.

Yesterday was the right day for such a big move because it was Patriots Day, and the acquisition of a back as talented and hard-nosed as Dillon really made it that in Foxborough. This is the kind of move that will take on bigger significance this weekend, because now New England can use its two No. 1 picks to address other needs without being bothered by thoughts of a running game that finished 27th in the NFL a year ago and had no one who might lead coach Bill Belichick to assume that would be significantly altered next season.

Corey Dillon is that someone.

Dillon rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the first six seasons of his career on teams that went an aggregate 26-70. He became disenchanted with the team, and that led to what seemed from afar to be constant griping from a guy no one could please. It came to a head Sept. 24, 2000, the day he did the unthinkable and walked off the field and refused to re-enter the game against the Ravens, an act people in Cincinnati say Marvin Lewis, now the Bengals' coach, never forgot even though he was on the other sideline at the time.

Many people felt things would change with the hiring of Lewis in Cincinnati, and for the most part they did. The Bengals won more games last season than any Cincinnati team since 1996, coincidentally the year before Dillon was drafted, but it was too late. Dillon had become a guy not physically ground down but mentally burned out.

"Corey has nothing but respect for Marvin," insisted his agent, Steve Feldman, yesterday. "He just couldn't buy into the program."

Dillon insisted yesterday during a teleconference with the local media that this will not be the case with the Patriots. He assured everyone that he is happy to be on a team where the focus is on winning and not on him. He insisted winning is more important than individual production. He said if there's a week he gets 30 carries followed by a week in which he gets three, it's fine with him. Winning cures all ills.

You would be justified to cast a jaundiced eye at such comments except for this: He always ran hard for his employers even when he hated them. That is the definition of a professional. Do your job and keep it separate from anything else going on around you.

Until last season, Dillon had averaged more than 1,200 yards rushing a season, and although he's not a great receiver, he averaged nearly 8 yards a catch. In other words, until he ran for only 541 yards on just 138 carries while splitting time with Rudi Johnson last year, he was one of the most productive backs in football despite playing for one of its least productive franchises. That should count for something, and it did with Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli.

Feldman had been given permission by the Bengals to come up with a deal to Lewis's liking, because the coach was fed up with Dillon and vice versa. Feldman talked with several teams, including the Oakland Raiders, but all along it was the Patriots who expressed the most interest. Yesterday they offered the Bengals far more than Cincinnati had begun to hope possible for its wayward running back.

"The Patriots said all along that Corey was a great running back," said Feldman, who also represents Rodney Harrison. "They talked with a lot of people who played with him, against him, and who knew him. Believe me, we worked this one diligently. I honestly believe Belichick and Pioli are two of the smartest guys in football. Corey is a Patriots' type guy, and they saw that. Once they believed it, the deal got done."

The one concern is Dillon has been willing to speak his mind, a tendency that does not fit in with the Stepford Wives-type team Belichick is trying to create. Then again, the same is true of Harrison, and he did things the Patriot Way without losing his sense of self.

Now Feldman has brought another such player to the doorstep of the Patriots. Dillon will be arguably the most talented running back to wear New England's colors. With the draft still five days away, it is already a success because you cannot draft a proven commodity like Corey Dillon with any pick. 

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