FOXBOROUGH -- During the Patriots' open week this season (after their sixth game), Corey Dillon will be on the other side of the big Three-O.
For many running backs that spells the beginning of the end, though Dillon has enough examples, like the Jets' Curtis Martin winning the rushing title last season at age 31, to hope that his going on the other side of 30 Oct. 24 doesn't mean the end of anything.
''I look at it like I know there's a dropoff, but for a guy to lead the league . . . that's telling you something," said Dillon after yesterday's morning workout. ''You can look at all the statistics you want, break it down, it's on that person. You don't look at that person's age, you look at his heart, and I have a big one. If I didn't think I could perform like I usually do, I wouldn't be out here."
There's always concern about a back who has taken so many hits for so long wearing down. The Patriots watched for that last season, because Dillon never had been in the playoffs, let alone make it to the Super Bowl. He played 15 regular-season games and three in the postseason. His production never fell off, and he had his best season with 1,635 yards, trailing only Shaun Alexander (1,696) and Martin (1,697).
''It was a long season," Dillon said. ''Ordinarily, I'd be home watching. Last year I had an opportunity to extend my playing by going to the playoffs and then the Super Bowl. That was something new for me. The layoff was short. We got done in February. Only had like a month off and came back here for two months and worked out. Had another three weeks off and next thing you know it's training camp.
''In between those breaks I got a lot of reps and just tried to get my body back. I've got a daily routine, work out, eat right, come out here, and just work your tail off and try to be the best you can be. That's been my motto from Day 1. I do a lot of stretching. A lot of cold tub. It works. The chiropractor works. I get a massage every two days and it really helps. Earlier in my career, I never got into stuff like that, but now that I'm a little older, I take it seriously. I stay on my routine."
Dillon said he doesn't have any requests in terms of workload in the exhibition season or regular season.
''I'll do whatever is asked," he said. ''If I have to run it 30 [times], I'll run it 30. Whatever my workload is for that game, I'm comfortable doing it. I'm not going to complain. Not at all."
There was much attention in Dillon's first season on his incentive-laden contract. Every week during the second half of the season, there was a note telling him which rung of the incentive ladder he had reached. In Game 16 Dillon needed to reach the 1,600-yard mark to earn a final $375,000 payment, which he did on a 29-yard jaunt in the third quarter.
The Patriots put a smile on Dillon's face by signing him to a five-year deal worth $25 million, with about $10 million of the first two years guaranteed.
''I wasn't really worried about it last year, to be honest with you," he said with a laugh. ''I don't go out here and try to play for money or stats, I just want to win. So last year I really wasn't worried about it. My whole mind-set is hey, if I get 'em, I get 'em, and if I don't, I don't. It's no big deal for me, but this year I'm a lot more at ease because I don't have to worry about people pointing out bonuses and this and that. I can just go out and take care of my stuff."
He's appreciative the Patriots allowed him to reach his final incentive because the team easily could have a made a case that Dillon should have rested against the hapless 49ers in a meaningless game.
''I've seen that happen to a lot of guys," Dillon said. ''They could be a yard away from reaching this type of bonus . . . and I didn't even look at it that way. They wanted me to play, whether I got the yards or not. I think we've got that much respect for one another that we're not really worried about that stuff. Should we sit him? There was never a question about that. Ever. I wanted to play, and they were going to play me regardless of whether I got the yards or not."
For a guy who never had won a thing before last year, Dillon was genuinely touched by his good fortune last season. Sure, he did things in Cincinnati that raised eyebrows and caused his character to be questioned, but in the end the Patriots recognized that all of his indiscretions were the result of his desire to win.
''I sat at home and turned on the NFL network and they'd show some clips and I'd get some chills," Dillon said. ''It still hasn't hit me. I still don't believe we accomplished what we accomplished. We did and maybe somewhere down the line it'll hit me that we did something special."
He hasn't worn his Super Bowl ring much, instead storing it for a time when he will be able to enjoy it.
Dillon has remained grounded about what's ahead. He was asked a lot about the team's losses on defense, the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, and the difficulty of a team staying at a high level.
''There are no guarantees," he said. ''It's going to be tough. I'm just looking for us to go out there as a team and help us win football games. If we go out there and play our type of football, we're going to make things happen. There are a lot of great teams in this league. There's no guarantee for anybody. We're just like everybody else; we're out here working hard. Everybody wants to strive to get to that ultimate goal. We're one of the teams that's trying to do it, too."
One would suspect that coach Bill Belichick will keep the same formula as last season regarding Dillon's exhibition carries. Last season, Dillon had 29 preseason carries for 104 yards; Mike Cloud led the team with 49 carries.
''I don't think anyone has to worry about whether I'll be ready. I'll be there when it counts," Dillon said.