FOXBOROUGH -- On Laurence Maroney's first day as a Patriot, Corey Dillon sweated. He just didn't sweat the arrival of Laurence Maroney.
While Maroney has been preparing the last few months for the draft that made him the Patriots' No. 1 pick yesterday, Dillon has been laboring in Thousand Oaks, Calif., working for the first time with a personal trainer he claims to be taking seriously. Four days a week Dillon has been running sand dunes, doing hill work that reminds some of the legendary workouts of Walter Payton, working on drills to improve and quicken his footwork, and doing whatever else he's being told to do in an effort to bounce back from the worst season of his nine-year professional career.
Now on the shady side of 30, which is historically the point of no return for NFL running backs, Dillon played in the fewest games of his career (12), started the fewest (10), rushed for fewer than half of the 1,635 yards he'd gained his first season in New England (733), had the lowest per-carry average (3.5 yards) of his career, and carried the ball 136 fewer times than in his first season as a Patriot, when he toted the ball a career-high 345 times on his way to his first Super Bowl appearance.
Dillon, who will turn 32 in October, looked at that precipitous slide in production and while believing much of it was the result of a high ankle sprain that plagued him most of the year, also accepted that his body now demanded to be treated differently if he was to return to the levels he consistently hit in his seven years in Cincinnati and his first season in New England. That's why he had agent Steve Feldman find him a personal trainer and, more importantly, why he is listening to him.
''It's the first time I've had a personal trainer that I'm serious about learning what he's teaching me," Dillon told a friend in California recently. ''I hired some in the past, but it was kind of fluky. This time it's legit. I feel I'm getting a little faster, a little stronger.
''The way I envision last year didn't add up. For what reason, I don't know. I'm not even going to get into it. I do what's asked of me down there. I've got a lot of respect for the people down there, for my teammates, for the ownership. It just didn't pan out [last year]."
Dillon said he feels he played when he shouldn't have last season, telling the same friend, ''I was basically hopping around on one leg . . . just playing under the team concept." Dillon was not complaining when he said it. He was only saying he felt he had fulfilled his responsibilities as a team player, trying to produce the best he could despite an ankle that was causing him constant pain.
The Patriots are aware Dillon has been working diligently in the offseason, and coach Bill Belichick said yesterday he expects Dillon to be a productive member of the offense. Yet with Maroney available as they were ready to make the 21st selection in the first round, the Patriots for all intents and purposes selected Dillon's replacement only a year after giving him a $3 million signing bonus and a $1 million base salary for 2005, after he'd earned nearly that much in bonuses and a $1.2 million base in 2004.
Dillon is on the books for only $710,000 this year, according to NFL Players Association salary information, but is due a $3 million option bonus and $2.5 million in salary in 2007, money he would now seem unlikely to get if Maroney shows even flashes of promise the way Larry Johnson did with the Kansas City Chiefs before he was finally given the starting job over a hurting Priest Holmes.
Although there was some debate among teams over who was the second-rated back behind Reggie Bush, most teams favored the 217-pound Maroney, who rushed for 1,464 yards in his only season as a starter at Minnesota last year while finishing fifth in the nation with an average of 133.1 yards per game.
The fact he started only one year is no knock on Maroney because despite sharing time with Marion Barber III in 2003 and 2004, Maroney still rushed for 1,121 and 1,348 yards in those years. That made them the first players from the same team to each rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons in NCAA Division 1 history. It's highly unlikely Maroney and Dillon can do the same in the NFL, but they may well form a tandem that preserves Dillon for a year the way the Chiefs did with Holmes and Johnson, before Johnson took over the position last season, his third in Kansas City.
The trajectory of both Holmes's and Johnson's production illustrate what was behind the Patriots' thinking yesterday. In 2003, Johnson's rookie year, he carried only 20 times as Holmes, then 30, rushed 320 times for 1,420 yards. The next year, Johnson carried 120 times for 581 yards, averaging 4.8 yards a carry and scoring 10 touchdowns, while Holmes struggled with injuries and slipped to 892 yards in only eight games.
Last season, Johnson took over, rushing for 1,750 yards on 336 carries while the injury-plagued Holmes limped into only seven games in which he gained 451 yards on 119 carries. Surely Belichick expects more of Dillon this season, as does Dillon, but knowing the pattern for running backs past the age of 30, the Patriots chose to use their first-round pick not on a linebacker or cornerback, but on a young runner with fresh legs.
''I think that he brings an element of speed and certainly youth to the position," Belichick said after the selection. ''I like our backs. I like the production that we've had from Kevin [Faulk], Patrick [Pass], and Corey, but in terms of experience they are all up there, seven, eight [make it going on 10 in Dillon's case] plus years and we really feel like it's good to have a young player to work with."
Belichick surprisingly admitted he called Dillon yesterday to explain why the Patriots were taking Maroney, and apparently to reassure him that the selection did not mean his job was in jeopardy. Perhaps not this fall, but if history is a wise predictor of the future, barring an injury to Maroney what this likely means is the young legs will start getting more carries, at the expense of the old legs.
If done properly, that can work in the short term for both men, as it did in Kansas City. But when Johnson began having success he also began wanting the ball. When he got it he was so productive he got it more, and Holmes disappeared. Such is life for one NFL running back in spring and another in winter.
''I explained to him what the situation was and all of that," Belichick revealed. ''We expect Corey to be ready to go. I'm sure that he will be. He's a professional. He's been a very productive player for us and we expect Corey to have major contributions for us this year, as we do Kevin and Patrick."
Regardless of what was said to Dillon yesterday, he had wisely begun to do what will be far more important to his future than talking. He adopted a strenuous offseason workout regimen designed to revitalize legs that have carried him to 10,429 yards but ones that in the last three seasons produced two subpar years, the 541 yards he gained his final season in Cincinnati when he was supplanted by Rudi Johnson and last year's 733 yards.
Corey Dillon didn't need the shadow of Laurence Maroney, 21 years old and fully believing he is the future, to inspire him. He had already begun to feel the ravages of all those carries and chose not to ignore them but instead to see them for what they were -- signs he needed to change how he prepared himself for a new season that may be the most competitive he has ever faced.
''I feel like I can still be a factor in the game," Dillon told his friend several weeks ago. Maroney feels the same way. If they're both right, the Patriots' offense took a step forward not just yesterday but with every step Dillon has been taking up the sand dunes.