Corey Dillon is off to a painfully slow start, producing roughly half as many yards per carry as he did a year ago in his first season with the Patriots. Not surprisingly, this has raised questions, and the answers could be among a host of things.
It could be the play of an offensive line still getting used to personnel changes and the regular shuffling in and out of rookie tackle Nick Kaczur every two or three series. It could be that Dillon has simply not yet adjusted after slimming down a bit to add quickness and thus his timing is off. Or it could be just that the front lines of the Raiders and Panthers played stoutly and left Dillon with little running room.
Then again, it could be something more troubling. It could be the calendar.
If it is any, or even all, of the first three reasons, Dillon has a solvable problem. If it is the latter, however, this could be a long season for him and the Patriots' running game, as it once was for Eddie George in Tennessee, Earl Campbell in Houston, and a long march of other backs before them, because the odds are stacked heavily against any runner in the NFL once he turns 31, as Dillon will Oct. 24.
In the history of the league, there have been 440 1,000-yard seasons by running backs, dating back to Beattie Feathers, who in 1934 piled up 1,034 yards for the Chicago Bears in what is considered by most people to be the first true year of the NFL. In all the years since then, only 30 times has a running back 30 or older managed to rush for 1,000 yards. That is only 7 percent of the total, a number that surprised Kansas City assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Al Saunders.
''That's amazing," Saunders said. ''Running back is the most physically demanding position on the field for absorbing punishment. The human system isn't made to run into defensive linemen and linebackers at the speed they collide at 20 or 30 times a game. Imagine going and running into your garage door as hard as you could and then doing it 30 times for 16 weeks. After five or six years, you'd probably not feel too good, either.
''And it's not just what they do with the ball. It's what they do without the ball. The punishment in this league has a cumulative effect on backs going back to high school. We're such a 'now' society. We say we're going to give the guy some rest, but if he gives you the best chance to win on Sunday, he gets the ball and you worry about it next week. At what point can you not take any more punches?"
Apparently, for even the great ones, it's right around age 30. When Curtis Martin led the league a year ago, his total of 1,697 yards was the most ever by a back 30 or older, surpassing Walter Payton's 1,684 in 1984. This season, Martin is trying to become only the seventh back over 31 to reach the 1,000-yard plateau. Dillon also will be scrambling to prove he can still rack up the yards, and Seahawks running back coach Stump Mitchell says don't bet against him.
''I don't think it will be a problem for Corey to do it," Mitchell said. ''He's still ticking pretty good. No question the system you run in is very important. How do you get your yards? Ricky Williams had over 1,000 yards that last year in Miami  but he was only averaging about 3.5 yards a carry. That's tough, tough yardage. Your body will only take but so much of that. Corey can get those yards, but he gets them outside, too."
Inside or outside, carrying the football in the NFL is one of the most punishing jobs in sports. The constant pounding, the high-speed collisions, the twisting and tearing at your knees, ankles, and feet. It all added up over the last 71 years to this simple fact: Only nine backs over 30 and only three over 32 have ever reached the 1,000-yard level.
Not Eric Dickerson. Not Jerome Bettis. Not O.J. Simpson. Not Earl Campbell. Not Eddie George. Not Terrell Davis. Not Thurman Thomas. Can Dillon beat those odds? Perhaps, but it will be an uphill fight.
''At that position, you can't hide anything," explained Jacksonville offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, whose lines have opened holes for Barry Sanders in Detroit, Martin in New England, and now Fred Taylor. ''If you get old, it goes away real fast. It's not like other positions. A runner who doesn't have it any more has no place to hide.
''One of our coaches was in Tennessee and he told me they kept Eddie George two years too long. One day he was a 1,000-yard rusher. The next day that guy was gone. It's the hits.
''They wear a guy out. They lose a step, then they start taking bigger hits. The hits that were glancing blows become big-time hits. With Barry everything was a glancing blow, but when a lot of backs start to slow down, everything is a pile-driving hit. When that happens, they slide pretty fast."
After two games, Dillon has rushed 37 times for 99 yards, an average of 2.7 yards a carry. After two games a year ago, he had rushed for 244 yards on 47 carries, an average of 5.19 yards per run. Today he will try to get back on track against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The yards won't come easy at Heinz Field, but for backs Dillon's age, they don't come easy anywhere.
Caller ID: Brady on the line
One defensive coach whose team has played the Patriots this season believes he's solved the mystery of who's calling the plays in New England.
''[Tom] Brady is running everything at the line of scrimmage," said the defensive assistant, who asked for anonymity. ''In our game, he ran about 70 percent of their offense at the line of scrimmage.
''They give him a bag full of plays and then they let him handle it. That doesn't mean their coaches don't have an influence. They still have to come up with the game plan and the plays they want to run in different situations.
''But in our game it was Brady who was calling things at the line, and why not? It's tough to get him in many rush schemes he doesn't recognize or a protection that makes him vulnerable. He's got more experience in that offense than most of the coaches coaching him.
''[Bill] Belichick doesn't even have a headset on, so how's he calling the plays? Smoke signals? If you think a 28-year-old kid [quarterback coach Josh McDaniels] is doing it, you don't understand much about Belichick.
''In our game, Brady came to the line with several play options given to him, I assume, by the game plan or from the sidelines. But it was Brady who was running things when he got over the ball. It seems to be working."
Quarterback goes for the conversion
Matt Jones, the 6-foot-6-inch former Arkansas quarterback who was drafted on the first round by Jacksonville and then converted to wide receiver, doesn't yet have much of a clue how to play wideout in the NFL, but that hasn't prevented him from impressing the coaching staff.
''He made a catch in one of our games that was like Lynn Swann," said Jaguars offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. ''He got his left hand on the ball, tipped it in the air, and grabbed it with his right hand. One of the opposing coaches asked me if he'd done that before. I told him, 'About three times a day in practice.'
''He doesn't even know how to run a route yet but he's a 4.3 in the 40 and he doesn't know how good he is. He'll be a big-play guy in this league. He catches everything, and you don't even hear the ball hit his hands."
Offensive coordinator Carl Smith is trying to find new ways to use Jones. He has had him under center with regular quarterback Byron Leftwich split wide and used him on the option pass. At the moment, he has one more run (4) than catch (3), so you get the idea.
''It's fun finding ways to use him," said Smith, ''but it's a double-edged sword because right now the thing he does best is play quarterback, but we've got a quarterback. What's hard is to get him to run a hook."
Among those working with Jones is wide receivers coach Steve Walters, who has some experience in preparing a guy like Jones. He helped Titans wide receiver Drew Bennett make the same transition, from college quarterback (at UCLA) to first-class NFL wide receiver.
A victory for the home team
Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who has coached in his hometown since 1992, knows how unlikely his long run has been in a profession where ready access to a moving van is an invaluable asset. Perhaps that is why Cowher has an unusual measuring stick for his time in Pittsburgh. ''I grew up here, my parents still live here, and I've been able to raise my girls here," Cowher said. ''We've been in the same house since 1992 and that's unique in our business. I've got one [daughter] in college, another graduating this year, and one in the ninth grade. If I'm fortunate enough to get them all through high school, I think that would be one of the better achievements of my tenure here."
Queasy does it
Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans might have never played a down in the NFL if it weren't for the fact that he couldn't stomach his parents' business. ''They wanted me to be a doctor," Haggans said. ''I just couldn't stand the blood and guts." Haggans's father was an emergency room surgeon. His mother is a veterinarian. ''I'd come in and ask her for lunch money and she'd be doing surgery on a dog or neutering it or something," Haggan said. ''I'd see the stomach open and it just wasn't my bag of chips."
The comforts of home
Any thought that the Colts would be the NFL team that relocates to Los Angeles ended when they signed a 30-year lease based on the construction of a new domed stadium in Indianapolis the city expects to be ready by 2008. As part of the new lease, the city would no longer have to make up any shortfall between the team's annual revenues and the NFL median, which cost the city more than $10 million a year ago. In return, the Colts will receive all football revenues and half the building's non-football revenues up to $43.5 million, as well as all revenue from naming rights, signage, and stadium sponsorships. The Colts will not be responsible for maintaining the facility or for game-day expenses. It is expected that the stadium will cost $500 million.
Top of his game
The Colts' decision to extend the contract of Tony Dungy by three years (through 2009) will put him among the highest-paid coaches in the league at $5 million a season. Team owner Jim Irsay said, ''I didn't have any problem with making him paid with the top coaches in his profession, which he deserves. To have a proven winner is something that's an invaluable asset to a franchise. But all of our fans and the people of Indiana realize what a tremendous individual we have. The way he carries himself. His class. His interest in the community. He's the type of individual you want to represent your franchise." Dungy is 38-17 with the Colts and has led them into the playoffs three straight years.
As Donovan McNabb tried to ready himself for last Sunday's game after injuring his chest the previous Monday night, he sought out an experienced hand (or chest) to ask how to cope with it. McNabb called Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who suffered a similar injury last season that was so painful he briefly considered retirement. ''It hurt to laugh, it hurt to do anything," McNair said. ''I told him there were things to come. I told him not to rush it, just take his time and heal because as long as you go out there and aggravate it, it's going to continue to get worse. But he's got a good spirit. He won't be out long."
CBS analyst Randy Cross, who was a standout lineman with the 49ers in their Super Bowl years, had an interesting take on what passes for innovation in the NFL. ''Being innovative these days is sometimes having the lack of ego or guts to imitate something," Cross said. ''Heck, in the newspaper industry, plagiarism is grounds for firing. In the NFL, you get a raise for doing that."
Learning curve straightened out
Nobody was happier to return to Washington and be coached by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams than defensive end Renaldo Wynn. Why? This is the first time in five years Wynn didn't have to learn a new defensive system from a new coordinator. ''You're behind the 8-ball when you're learning a new defense every year," Wynn said. ''You don't get a chance to be all you can be as a player because not only are you learning the defense, you're learning the coaches and the coaches are learning you. This year, everyone knows what to expect from each other. We've passed the dating process. Now we're living together." A year ago, Williams built the Redskins into the league's No. 3 defense in his first season with them.
Sheets of paper hanging in the Tampa Bay locker room all week offered a simple reminder: ''1989." That's the last time the Bucs beat the Packers in Wisconsin. ''That's a reminder that Boy George was at the top of the charts," said coach Jon Gruden. ''Jiminy Christmas, 1989 is a long time. That's what we're up against. We haven't won there in forever. I don't even know where I was in 1989." Today Tampa Bay will look to end a string of 13 consecutive road losses to Green Bay.
Quote of the week
Denver defensive end Trevor Pryce, on why the Broncos' 20-17 victory over San Diego held special significance because it avoided a deadly 0-2 start: ''Had we lost, we would have been so far behind the 8-ball, we would have been off the pool table."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.