By: Christopher Price
August 22, 2004

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New Patriots DL Danny Shelton preps to hit the hill
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You know the feeling you get when you hear your favorite band is coming to the area? You buy your tickets, and you can't wait for the big day. You put the tickets on the fridge, and you cross off the days on your calendar before the concert gets there. Once the day arrives, you can't wait for the show to start. And after the opening act shuffles off stage and the lights go down, there are a few seconds before the show starts. In those seconds, sitting in the dark, clapping along with your friends, you're filled with the most ridiculous level of anticipation. I can't believe it. I'm actually here. It's about to begin.

That's the same feeling I get when I even think about preseason football. That same level of excitement and anticipation and adrenaline that comes with the appetizer that is preseason football is borne out of six long months without the NFL. (After all, a thirsty man wandering through the desert doesn't know a mirage from the real thing, right?)

Unfortunately, most of the time, the emotional payoff from preseason football isn't the same as watching your favorite band live. The starters don't last much beyond a couple of quarters and end up on the sidelines during crunch time, standing around looking disinterested while chatting with teammates. Generally, they look like they'd rather be somewhere else, anywhere other than a game that has the same emotional impact as an insurance seminar.

But Saturday night in Cincinnati, the city that gave America Herb Tarlek, Bob Huggins and Pete Rose, wasn't just any insurance seminar. It was more than the arrival of the Patriots on the shores of the Ohio River for the first time since Drew Bledsoe was quarterback. It was The Return of Corey Dillon, a man who wanted out of town so badly he told reporters he would rather flip burgers than play for the Bengals. He ripped his teammates on national television, and tossed his gear into the stands after the final game of the 2003 season. This was a storyline straight out of the WWE, a script Vince McMahon would have killed for.

And playing the role of heel was Dillon. The former Bengal was booed by the handful of folks who were in the stands almost two hours before the game when he came out to warm up. He then spoke briefly with running backs coach Jim Anderson. After the Dillon and Anderson hugged, wide receiver Chad Johnson approached and they engaged in what appeared to be pleasant conversation.

But that's where the pleasantries ended. He finished with just 31 yards on 11 carries as the boos rained down around him all night.

"I don't care about the crowd,” Dillon told reporters after the game. "Who cares? I'm happy and content where I am. Believe me, I'm more than happy. [The fans] can say whatever they want. They're not making plays on the field. So it's not an issue. Not with me.”

After the offense submitted a pair of three-and-outs right out of the gate, New England looked to click on its third possession of the game. On that drive, Dillon hauled in an eight-yard pass to take them down to the Cincinnati six-yard line, but he couldn't convert in a short-yardage situation, getting stuffed for a no-gain. Dan Klecko cleared the way for a three-yard gain and first down, but another pair of runs from the three resulted in no gains for Dillon, much to the delight of the Bengals' faithful. It capped a first-half from hell for Dillon, who had 10 yards on 7 carries. Meanwhile, Rudi Johnson, the man who replaced him, had 76 yards on 16 carries as Cincinnati rolled to a 28-3 lead.

"The Bengals ... were outstanding in every phase of the game, and we didn't do much of anything,” Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "They played aggressive and they played well, and we didn't do any of those things.

"Obviously, we've got a lot of work to do.”

While Johnson was able to call it a night early on, Dillon stayed in the game in the second half while Rohan Davey replaced Tom Brady and the starting offensive line took a seat. Against the Cincinnati junior varsity, he appeared to be doing a better job in the second half. He had his longest run of the evening early in the third quarter, an 11-yard jaunt around left end. On the next drive, he also caught a nice little screen pass from Davey, picking up 15 yards. But that moment quickly turned sour when he put the ball on the ground. That pretty much put the wraps on the night for Dillon, who turned things over to Mike Cloud.

The whole evening, Dillon looked a lot like Roger Clemens when the Rocket returned to Fenway for the 1999 ALCS: a former local hero shaken and stirred by a less-than-pleasant homecoming committee. Afterward, Dillon did not try and sugarcoat his performance.

"[The Bengals] played well, extremely well," Dillon told reporters. "If you're looking for an excuse from me, you're not going to get it.”

Dillon can always circle Dec. 12 on his calendar. That's the date of the regular-season rematch between the two teams in Foxboro.

"I don't brush off the preseason. If we'd won, I'd be as happy as a tick on a dog, but we didn't,” Dillon said. "I'll worry about December 12 when December 12 comes.”

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and He can be reached at [email protected].