There are two ways of looking at the Patriots recent trade to acquire Bengals running back Corey Dillon: the team filled a glaring need for a top-flight back but it took a significant risk to do so.
In Dillon the Patriots picked up an element they've lacked since 1997 when Curtis Martin bolted New England and signed as a restricted free agent with the Jets. Game-breaking running backs aren't in abundance in the National Football League. Dillon is certainly worthy of being included among the likes of Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams, Clinton Portis and Jamal Lewis as one of the game's best at his position.
In seven seasons with the lowly Bengals, Dillon rushed for 8,061 yards and 45 touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. And those numbers took a hit after a forgetful 2003 campaign that saw an injured Dillon pick up just 541 yards on 138 carries. The latter total was 95 less than his rookie year of 1997, which was his previous low-water mark for a season.
As if those totals weren't impressive enough, Dillon racked up those gaudy numbers while playing for a perennial doormat. Opposing defenses knew each and every week that stopping Dillon likely meant walking off the field victorious. Even though Cincinnati managed just a 26-70 record during his time with the Bengals, few defenses accomplished their goal.
If this trade were strictly about football, detractors would be tougher to find than a Gary Barnett supporter. A second-round pick for a three-time Pro Bowl running back doesn't seem to be a fair exchange. But as is often than case when something appears too good to be true, there's more than football to consider with Dillon.
Before he ever graced the NFL with his presence in 1997, Dillon had already racked up a rap sheet longer than any his considerable rushing credentials could fill. According to the 1998 book "Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL," Dillon was indicted eight times for various crimes, many of which were violent in nature, all before he even made it to the University of Washington.
While most of his problems with authority happened before he turned 20 years of age, Dillon hasn't exactly been a model citizen as a pro. He was arrested in 2000 for beating his wife and also was charged with driving while intoxicated in 1998. He's been at constant odds with Cincinnati's front office and coaches, complained vociferously about his carries, hired and fired agents like most of us change socks and openly quit on the field at least once.
Last year, even though the Bengals were 7-5 and fighting to make the playoffs for the first time in his career, Dillon still found a way to complain about his lack of involvement in the offense while young Rudi Johnson took his job as the starter. It seems the only time Dillon isn't creating controversy is when he actually has the football in his hands.
So there's much more involved in this situation than just football. The Patriots, as an organization, have tried to steer clear of such controversial figures in the past. Back in 1996, after drafting former Nebraska bad boy Christian Peter in the fifth round, the Patriots ultimately released their rights to the defensive tackle after learning the extent of his past transgressions.
Moves like that probably don't help the team win many games on the field, but off it the organization – and owner Robert Kraft in particular – was commended for its honorable actions. It can only be assumed that Kraft and his decision-makers – Head Coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli – were sufficiently convinced that Dillon's law-bending ways are behind him for good and his sometimes abrasive personality won't have any ill effects in the harmonious Patriots locker room.
"I try to hire the best managers I can and ask them tough questions and hold them accountable," said Kraft, who spoke after issuing his "Community Quarterback Awards" at a Gillette Stadium luncheon on Tuesday. "I'm interested in not bringing players here who we're not going to be proud to have in the New England community and how they're going to represent us off the field as well as on it. I think [Dillon] wants to win. He understands we're about team. I think our managers believe we're a better football team with him here."
Financially, the Patriots have taken very little risk. Dillon has just two years left on the five-year, $26.1 million deal he signed with the Bengals. He reported during a conference call on Monday that he's agreed to a restructure, lowering the bottom line from the $3.3 million he was slated to earn. And with no signing bonus to contend with, the Patriots can cut ties with him at any time without cap implications.
In that regard, the Dillon trade makes perfect sense. If he stays out of trouble the Patriots get a Pro Bowl cure to their running ills while paying much less than a comparable back would cost on the open market. And even if he does run afoul of the law, they can release him without entering into cap purgatory.
But that's the practical side of the argument. The intangible aspect of the trade is tougher to quantify. While the Patriots stand to lose very little if Dillon doesn't pan out, thus making the move a no-brainer, the organization's reputation could take a hit simply for being associated with him. And for a franchise that has worked so hard to move in a positive direction, that might be a risk that wasn't worth taking.