JACKSONVILLE, Fla. As Corey Dillon left the field after his final game as a Cincinnati Bengal, he tossed his shoulder pads, cleats and helmet into the stands at Paul Brown Stadium. It was a snapshot of the talented but tempestuous running back's seven years with one of the NFL's losingest franchises.
Little over a year later, Dillon is the third choice in betting lines to be the MVP of Sunday's Super Bowl, a game that he never thought he'd get to; only quarterbacks Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb are ahead of him. Traded to the Patriots for a second-round choice just before last April's draft, he's on a team that could win its 17th game of the season, exactly half of the 34 the Bengals won in his seven years with them.
''It's very relaxing to be with a winner because everyone around me is relaxed. It calms me,'' he said this week as the Patriots, seeking their third NFL title in four years, prepared to play Philadelphia.
''They know this is my first experience here, so the other players joke on me a lot. I get a lot of Cincinnati jokes.''
Dillon isn't the only veteran who suddenly finds himself in a Super Bowl after years with a losing team.
Last season, it was safety Rodney Harrison, Dillon's New England teammate, who spent the first nine years of his career in San Diego. The Eagles, who lost three straight NFC title games before beating Atlanta to get here, have two or their own back after bad experiences elsewhere middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and defensive end Hugh Douglas.
But Dillon is the poster boy for all of them.
His off-field reputation was so questionable that before he was acquired by the Patriots, coach Bill Belichick brought him to Foxboro for an extensive interview to ensure he was the kind of player who would fit into his closely knit locker room. That was Dillon's first surprise he knew he would be traded, but he thought it would be to Dallas or Oakland.
The interview went well, Dillon became a Patriot and rushed for a team-record 1,635 yards.
That was not a shock.
Even playing with the lowly Bengals, he became one of four backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his first six NFL seasons; he made the Pro Bowl three times; and in 2000, he set what was then an NFL single-game record by rushing for 278 yards against Denver.
But given his reputation, a lot of his new teammates were amazed at his calm and polite demeanor. If there were any temper tantrums and they say there weren't they never reverberated outside the locker room.
The Patriots are equally satisfied if not more so with Harrison. He was signed after being released before the 2003 season by San Diego, in part because of the salary cap, in part because the Chargers thought he was on the backside of his career.
''I'm a lot calmer being here this year than I was at this time last year. But it's still gratifying to be winning after the team I was with for so long gave up on me,'' said Harrison, who won his first Super Bowl ring last season.
This year, at 32, he was almost a player/coach, positioning teammates in a secondary depleted by injuries to Ty Law and Tyrone Poole.
Harrison did play in a Super Bowl in 1995, as a rookie with San Diego, when the Chargers lost to San Francisco 49-26. But the Chargers went downhill quickly from there.
''I was more delighted for Rodney when we won last year than I was for myself,'' said Willie McGinest, another team leader.
In the case of Trotter and Douglas, the team that gave up on them is the team they ended up rejoining.
Trotter had been a Pro Bowl middle linebacker for Philadelphia and was designated the team's franchise player when he became a free agent after the 2001 season. But he was released after the Eagles tired of negotiating a long-term deal; Philadelphia has never been afraid to release key players if they don't fit into the team's salary structure.
''It was difficult, but that's our philosophy,'' said Tom Heckert, the team's personnel director.
Trotter landed in Washington, but underperformed, in part because of injuries. He was released last summer and re-signed with the Eagles.
Douglas, a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the NFL's better pass rushers for nearly a decade, signed as a free agent with Jacksonville before the 2003 season. He had just 3 1/2 sacks with the Jaguars, nine fewer than he had with the Eagles the previous season, and was released last summer. Back to the Eagles he went.
Trotter contributed more on the field this season.
He was mainly a special-teamer for the first half of the season, but became the starting middle linebacker at the midway point after the Eagles had problems stopping the run, allowing an average of 131 yards a game. In the second half of the season, that figure was almost 50 yards lower and Trotter ended up in the Pro Bowl again.
''When I was with the Redskins and we played in Philadelphia, I'd see people in the stands with my jersey. Except that instead of 'Trotter' on the back, it would say 'Traitor,'" he said.
There were off-the-field benefits, too, in bringing back Trotter and Douglas. Their locker room pranks enabled teammates to deal with the extreme pressure of getting to the Super Bowl after the three straight NFC title-game losses.
''It was great to have them back,'' safety Brian Dawkins said. ''It was great on the field, but it was even better in the locker room. Those two guys really kept us loose.''
And now, like Dillon, they're someplace they never expected to be.
The Super Bowl.
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