CINCINNATI -- No one knew just how memorable the 1997 Cincinnati Bengals season could be.
Then again, there weren't a lot of Bengals fans who knew Corey Dillon at the time, either.
In the draft leading up to the season, the Bengals felt they may have gotten a steal in the running back, who was projected as a first-round pick out of the University of Washington.
"But Dillon's thug rep and junior college tour lowered his stock," said Alan Grant of ESPN the Magazine.
"People were comparing him to that goon from Nebraska," former Washington assistant Dick Baird told the magazine. "Every time they saw a problem, the scouts were saying, 'He's another Lawrence Phillips.' "
So he fell to the second round at No. 43, and the Bengals snatched him up. Of course, it mattered little then, as former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter was the starting back, and thought to be a can't-miss stud.
But something happened to Carter on the way to the Hall of Fame: injuries. And it would happen again in 1997.
As the Bengals started off a gloomy 1-2, Carter once again found the bench, this time because of an injured shoulder.
Here we go again, fans thought.
Enter Corey Dillon. While it didn't make much of a difference in the course of the game, his performance left an impression.
"The Bengals fell to 1-3 Sunday with a 31-14 drubbing by the New York Jets," the Associated Press reported. "Their defense allowed Adrian Murrell to rush for 156 yards and the offense showed little except when Dillon was running the ball. The second-round draft pick out of Washington picked up 48 yards on nine carries -- a 5.3-yard average -- and caught two passes for 30 yards in his starting debut. He didn't get more work because the Bengals chose to throw the ball once they fell behind."
The performance also impressed the Bengals coaches.
"I think Corey played very well," coach Bruce Coslet told the AP. "Now, we're living through the rookie mistakes with him that we lived with two years ago from Ki-Jana. He ran right by Mo Lewis one time on a blitz pickup and Mo Lewis sacked our quarterback. That was Corey's man.
"But he ran the ball well. We like him as a runner. There's more to playing running back in this league than running the ball. I think he's a tremendous back. He's powerful, hard-try, north-south, every good description you can use about a running back. He just doesn't have enough experience yet to know all the stuff."
Dillon got the ball exactly twice in that second half, but his performance was enough that it convinced coaches to play him again -- even if Carter was physically able to play.
"I could sit here and say a lot of things, but the main point is that we didn't win," Dillon told the AP. "They called my number a few times and I was just trying to give the team a spark. I could comment on what we should have and could have done, but the point is that we lost."
Still, the game was a preview of what was to come for the rest of the season.
Dillon would go on to break Ickey Woods' club rushing mark for a first-year player with 1,129 yards. And it all led up to the historic December game with the Tennessee Oilers.
"In a 41-14 laugher, he ran through the Tennessee defense for 246 yards, surpassing Jim Brown's 20-year-old NFL rookie record of 237," reported Jockbio.com. "Afterwards, the Cincy coaching staff awarded Corey the game ball."
Dillon also scored a club-record four touchdowns.
"Corey Dillon needed only three quarters to surpass the best rushers in Cincinnati Bengals history," reported The New York Times. "In the closing minutes, he even bested Jim Brown."
And it was probably no coincidence that Bengals star Boomer Esiason was starting at quarterback.
"Crucial to Corey's development was his friendship with quarterback Boomer Esiason," Jockbio.com said. "The veteran recognized the rookie's vast potential, and took him under his wing, showing him the ropes on and off the field."
Esiason enjoyed a renaissance with Cincinnati. At 5-9, the Bengals had scored 114 points in their previous three games, all with Esiason starting.
"He was sensational again last night, throwing for 253 yards in a high-efficiency passing attack," the Times reported.
Still, it was Dillon's show.
"With just under two minutes to play, he broke Brown's 1957 rookie record of 237 yards," the newspaper reported. "He took a handoff from Esiason, bolted right and bulled for 10 yards. He brutalized a defense that was ranked third in the league against the run and had a lot of motivation. The Oilers were coming off a victory over Dallas on Thanksgiving and needed another victory to stay in playoff contention."
"Man, I had almost forgotten what a total beast of a running back Dillon was for the Bengals .... ," Kyle Kauffung wrote for Bleacher Report. "Those numbers are just insane. Granted, three of his touchdowns were on goal-line runs, but he also had a 31-yard rushing touchdown as well as a long gain of 59 yards."
Dillon's entire season was a breath of fresh air for Bengal fans, even though the team finished 7-9. Bleacher Report would rank it the third-best rookie season by a Bengal: 1,129 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns and 259 receiving yards.
He would go on to make three Pro Bowls (1999, 2000, 2001), rush for six 1,100-yard seasons, and set the record for most rushing yards in a game (278) in a contest against Denver on Oct. 22, 2000.
At the end of 2003, coupled with the emergence of Rudi Johnson (and an infamous remark asserting he'd rather "flip burgers" than return to Cincinnati), Dillon was traded to New England, and he won a Super Bowl there the following season. Recently, he was honored as one of the top 50 players in Bengals history.
Now he wants to make amends with his former team.
"I am a grown man, I can admit when I'm wrong," Dillon told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I did some stuff that was not cool, OK? Not cool at all. But, hey, at the end of the day I got the end result that I wanted. That was to play on a stage and actually winning a Super Bowl. Do I wish it would have been with them? Absolutely. Absolutely. It didn't work out that way. I don't have no ill will toward nobody there."
He said he appreciated the team honoring him.
"They say time heals wounds," Dillon said. "I played seven years hard for the Bengals. I'm a part of their history. They are a part of mine. I don't dwell on the past. What happened in the past is done. If I had a magic wand to go undo some stuff I would, but I can't. But that doesn't mean we can't move forward and have a better relationship. That's how I look at it. I appreciate it for them giving me a call and inviting me back. That means a lot."