Bargain now Chief of offense

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dick Vermeil went shopping for an imitation of Marshall Faulk for his Kansas City Chiefs some 21 months ago and found an original instead.

Priest Holmes wasn't just an offensive threat last year, he became the NFL rushing champion. He isn't just a piece of the Chiefs' playoff puzzle this year, he's the cornerstone.

Holmes' startling, two-year run to a new elevation among the league's premier running backs does not surprise the original.

"People always ask, 'Does it surprise you how you're playing now?' " Holmes said. "How do you answer that? Of course it doesn't surprise me. I knew I could play. I knew what was inside me. I always knew it was only a matter of time before other people saw it, too."

Two years ago, other people saw Holmes as a bargain-basement item in the free-agent market after four dependable but unspectacular seasons with the Ravens. Few teams showed serious interest. The Philadelphia Eagles took a peek and passed. The Chiefs signed him to a buyer-friendly, $7.548 million contract over five years.

Now? Holmes, 29, would have to be viewed as a steal at almost any price.

He is threatening to tie or break several prominent rushing and/or scoring records with three games to go. His 21 rushing touchdowns are on pace to tie Emmitt Smith's league record of 25. His 24 total touchdowns are on pace to shatter Faulk's league record of 26. His 2,104 total scrimmage yards are on pace to eclipse Faulk's league record 2,429 yards.

And his 144 points set him up for a run at Paul Hornung's 42-year-old scoring record of 176.

"I think he has a very good chance of breaking both records for touchdowns scored and total touchdowns rushing," said Vermeil, the Chiefs coach. "But it won't happen automatically."

Until Miami's Ricky Williams put up a pair of 200-yard rushing games back-to-back, Holmes had led the NFL in rushing, too. Heading into Sunday's game against Denver's No. 2 run defense, he is 46 yards behind Williams' 1,500.

Holmes is a perfect match with the offense Vermeil brought from St. Louis, where Faulk set the standard. He is capable of grinding for the tough yards between tackles, but turns game-breaker when the Chiefs put him in space.

"Dick felt there was only one Faulk, but we needed a back who could do some things Faulk does," Chiefs president Carl Peterson said. "Certainly with 1,500 rushing yards and over 2,000 total yards, he exceeded our expectations."

Reluctant to compare the two players, Vermeil says Faulk could line up and play with the game's best wide receivers. Holmes won't break as many long runs as Faulk, but he'll beat you with 10- and 12-yard gains.

"He's a fine football player and an outstanding person," Vermeil said of Holmes. "He works very hard and has developed tremendous stamina and running skills through his work and his gift."

Peterson identified another strength that works to Holmes' advantage.

"Of all the running backs I've seen in my career, he exudes the greatest patience as a runner, very similar to Marcus Allen," Peterson said. "Marcus wasn't very fast, but he could find a seam and take it. Priest has better acceleration."

Patience played an even bigger role in Holmes' career. Without it, he would have been lost along the way. He had to take a back seat to Ricky Williams at the University of Texas, and then to Jamal Lewis in the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl season.

Last year, he became the first undrafted player to win the league's rushing title; this after he got $2,500 to sign with the Ravens as a free agent in 1997.

Phil Savage, the Ravens director of college scouting, said a knee injury and Holmes' status as Ricky Williams' backup at Texas kept him from being drafted. Even a 120-yard, three-touchdown rushing game in the Big 12 championship game, after Williams was hurt, couldn't push Holmes into the draft.

"A guy who's drafted late or is a free agent has to play his way into the league," Savage said. "A guy who goes in the first four rounds has to play his way out of the league. Priest, from Day One, began playing his way into the league."

While serving as a tutor for Lewis, Holmes still rushed for 588 yards for the Ravens in 2000.

"I think he's matured and grown tremendously as a player," Savage said. "He worked on his hands a lot. His blocking was always good. He was our best pass protector when he was here."

In Kansas City, Holmes has sparked the 7-6 Chiefs to a December playoff run with his Most Valuable Player-caliber season. If he is not the league's best back, he's certainly its most productive.

He also has proved to be very durable. At 5 feet 9 and 213 pounds, Holmes has started all 29 games in two years for the Chiefs. He's averaging 21.4 carries per game and 103.8 rushing yards over that span.

Because of the playoff implications, Vermeil would like to see Holmes repeat as rushing king.

"First off, if Priest Holmes is not successful, we're not successful," Vermeil said. "So it's a high priority. ... Nobody does what Priest Holmes does any better with his sense of timing in coordination with our offensive linemen, especially out in space. So it's critical that Priest continues to play well and we continue to do good things with him."

Measuring up

Priest Holmes' two-year run of success with the Kansas City Chiefs compares favorably with two of the league's most prolific running backs, Marshall Faulk of the St. Louis Rams and Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys. Holmes' two seasons in Kansas City are matched with the two record-setting seasons of Faulk and Smith.

Priest Holmes

Tot. Tot.

Year Att. Yds. Avg. TD Rec. Yds. TD TDs Yds.

2001 327 1555 4.8 8 62 614 2 10 2169

2002 295 1454 4.9 21 68 650 3 24 2104

Totals 622 3009 4.8 29 130 1264 5 34 4273

Note: 2002 totals through 13 games.

Marshall Faulk

Tot. Tot.

Year Att. Yds. Avg. TD Rec. Yds. TD TDs Yds.

1999 253 1381 5.5 7 87 1048 5 12 *2429

2000 253 1359 5.4 18 81 830 8 *26 2189

Totals 506 2740 5.4 25 168 1878 13 38 4618

Emmitt Smith

Tot. Tot.

Year Att. Yds. Avg. TD Rec. Yds. TD TDs Yds.

1994 368 1484 4.0 21 50 341 1 22 1825

1995 377 1773 4.7 *25 62 375 0 25 2148

Totals 745 3257 4.4 46 112 716 1 47 3973

* -- NFL records

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