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For Holmes, there's no place like Kansas City

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The unanimity was what grabbed Dick Vermeil. Three different players from the Ravens' Super Bowl team passed through Kansas City in free agency last spring and each one unfailingly praised Priest Holmes.

Vermeil, the new coach of the Chiefs, didn't have to ask twice. He targeted the Ravens' reserve running back over another popular free agent, Charlie Garner, gave him a five-year, $7.548 million contract and watched Holmes become the biggest free-agent steal of the year.

In a season that came out of nowhere, Holmes leads the NFL in rushing with 1,146 yards and in total yards from scrimmage with 1,635. If the Ravens had that kind of production from a running back - be it the injured Jamal Lewis or Holmes - they wouldn't be talking about catching the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Central. They would already own the division.

Vermeil says now he knew what he was getting in Holmes, knowledge that was reinforced by former Ravens Trent Dilfer, Tony Banks and Keith Washington in free agency.

"They all said if they were in my business, sitting in my chair, if they could take one player off the Ravens' championship team, it would be Priest Holmes," Vermeil said. "I thought that was really a quality endorsement. It spoke not only about his character, but said he was a better player than he was given credit for."

Somehow, Holmes, 28, has always managed to be overshadowed in a career that has seen several golden moments. Usually, he's been overshadowed by a bigger back. At the University of Texas, it was Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. In Baltimore, it was a series of runners - Bam Morris, Errict Rhett and Lewis a year ago.

In Kansas City, the 5-foot-9, 216-pound Holmes found something he couldn't get in Baltimore: the role of feature back. He would be in Kansas City what Marshall Faulk was under Vermeil - and still is - in St. Louis: playmaker, leader, player to build around.

That's why Holmes took the Chiefs' offer over one from the Philadelphia Eagles or a possible return to the Ravens.

"I think I had done everything I could for Baltimore and it came to the point where I finished off the years I needed to put myself in position to go to a different team," Holmes said yesterday. "Just when I had the opportunity to go to another team, I took it."

When the Ravens drafted Lewis with the fifth pick in the 2000 draft, it effectively sentenced Holmes to the role of career backup in Baltimore. Holmes went into free agency attempting to remedy that situation.

"Priest felt he was a starter in the league," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "And he's proven that. If the opportunity presented itself to be a starter, he wanted to take that opportunity."

It was the Ravens' misfortune to have Lewis go down with a season-ending injury in training camp. They have spent the entire season trying to replace him, watching Holmes' success from afar.

Ravens coach Brian Billick was asked in a national conference call this week if there was any way the team could have kept Holmes.

"Probably not," Billick said. "First, from a financial standpoint, it would have been prohibitive [for] us to pay the money, and he was deserving of it. But there's no better man in the world than Priest Holmes, what he brought to our chemistry, just a class, class act.

"And obviously, with the injury to Lewis, we would love to have Priest here. But Priest, more than the money - which sounds silly to say in this day and age - was really looking for an opportunity to go someplace where he could be the legitimate starter. Here, barring injury, he knew that was not going to be the case; we had committed to Lewis."

Holmes feels more comfortable in Kansas City, where he has a coach who shifted the emphasis from quarterback Trent Green's passing game to suit his big-play ability in the running game.

"My relationship with Brian Billick was a little bit different because he was not the coach that brought me in," Holmes said. "He was the coach that came in and took over for Ted Marchibroda at the time. It was just a matter of doing the things I could to fit into his scheme. At the same time, I had my own goals and getting to free agency was one of them. Once I had the opportunity to do that, it was then to seek out a coach that would bring me in as a starter."

Holmes has rushed for 100 yards or more five times. He has had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. Running mostly from the spread formation, he has ripped off 10 runs of 20-plus yards, most in the NFL. He's also had 38 runs of 10-plus yards, a franchise record. And he's averaging 5.1 yards a carry on 225 carries - eight fewer than he had in 1998 when he gained 1,008 yards with the Ravens.

"The more he runs the ball, the better he gets," Vermeil said. "We're a pass offense team and he's a very good draw runner. He can locate the daylight. The other thing is our offensive line is very mobile. Our tackles, guards and center can pull, so we're a good perimeter running team. He's exploded some very good outside runs."

In a 28-26 loss to Oakland last Sunday, Holmes had 277 total yards - 168 rushing, 109 receiving.

He is on pace for 1,528 rushing yards and 2,100 total yards, figures that should make him a strong candidate for Offensive Player of the Year. Those are Faulk-like numbers.

"Marshall has more explosive speed," Vermeil said. "[But] that doesn't mean Priest can't break a run.

"He's a great football player. Marshall Faulk is an elite football player. This kid can play on anybody's football team. He can help us go to the Super Bowl."

The only thing Holmes hasn't accomplished is helping the 3-9 Chiefs win. They have not won back-to-back games yet, but their sixth-ranked offense is pointed in the right direction.

"He's running better today than his first four games," Vermeil said. "He better understands what we're doing with him, and he's gained more confidence."

Priest Holmes on the move

RUSHING............... 1,146

YARDS/CARRY........... 5.1

RECEPTIONS............ 45

AVG. CATCH.............10.9

SCORING...................48 pts.

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