|Wednesday, November 6
Updated: November 7, 11:23 AM ET
Chiefs strike it big with signing of Holmes
By Greg Garber
Carl Peterson, the Kansas City Chiefs' leading executive for 14 seasons, has made some impressive acquisitions.
He engineered a trade with the 49ers for quarterback Joe Montana, a three-time Super Bowl MVP. After he convinced Raiders running back Marcus Allen, the Super Bowl XVIII MVP, to join Montana, the Chiefs made the playoffs two years straight. In 2001, Peterson managed to lure head coach Dick Vermeil -- with whom he had collaborated at UCLA and the Philadelphia Eagles -- out of retirement a year after his Super Bowl campaign in St. Louis.
In recent weeks, Peterson has heard this sort of talk with increasing regularity. On Tuesday, the Chiefs' president returned a phone call, saying he was "up to his ears in alligators." Well, what about it? Where does the Holmes' signing fit into his noteworthy list of contract accomplishments?
"Well … I don't know," Peterson said. "You have to say that this guy's production has just been phenomenal. You really have to begin to almost pinch yourself that this guy is so good, on and off the field."
It was an unmitigated theft. Holmes received a base salary of $448,000 last year and is currently making $750,000. And while he received more than $1 million in bonuses for clearing 1,200 yards rushing and being voted to the Pro Bowl, his five-year contract calls for a relatively modest $8 million.
At the age of 29, when many NFL running backs are already calculating their pension from the players' association, Holmes is blossoming in breathtaking fashion. The Chiefs lead the league in scoring -- at 32.4 points per game, they are on pace to reach the rare 500-point barrier, last accomplished by the 2000 Rams. And Holmes, based on the eight-game returns, is headed toward one of the greatest seasons in history.
Here's the math, doubling his current totals:
You might think a man careening toward history would be in a hurry. You might be wrong.
"He is the most patient runner I've ever seen since Marcus Allen," Peterson said. "He really allows the offensive linemen to get into their blocks. Once the guy's engaged, he accelerates past guys. He's an incredibly patient man."
That's because he has been waiting his entire life for this opportunity.
A supporting role
Billick praised Holmes' unselfish attitude and added, almost as an aside, that the 2000 season probably would be Holmes' last in Baltimore.
"I just don't think we can afford to keep him here as a backup," Billick said. "He's a special person, but he's also a pretty good football player."
The suffocating salary demands of a Super Bowl championship roster and the ability Lewis demonstrated in his first season left Holmes expendable. It wasn't the first time it had happened to the 5-foot-9, 210-pound running back. He had started 13 games in 1998 for Baltimore, rushing for 1,008 yards and leading the team with 43 catches. But in 1999 it was Holmes' backup, Errict Rhett, who got the majority of the carries. Lewis was drafted the following year.
Even in college, Holmes was overlooked. At the University of Texas, he played sparingly as a true freshman and a sophomore, then gained more than 500 yards as a junior before blowing out his knee in 1995. When he came back the next year he was a starter for the first time and produced 1,276 yards and 20 touchdowns; his fullback was Ricky Williams, whom Holmes tutored the same way he would Lewis in Baltimore.
Maybe it was the knee injury, maybe it was running in the presence of a future Heisman Trophy winner … for whatever reason, Holmes was not drafted. Five days later, the Ravens signed him to a free-agent contract. Then, after four seasons, after gaining 2,102 yards (a 4.6 average) and starting 19 of 48 games, Holmes was a free agent again.
Like any business, the NFL collects free-agent information from a variety of sources; statistics are only part of the process. The Chiefs were looking for a running back before the 2001 season, and they eventually narrowed their list to three: Tiki Barber, Charlie Garner and Holmes. Peterson talked to his old college coach, John Mackovic, who had coached the Chiefs from 1983 through '86. He also queried Baltimore free agents Trent Dilfer (now in Seattle) and Lional Dalton (Denver).
"When your teammates are high on you, it really says a lot about you," Peterson said. "To a man, they all said the same thing: One, if you can sign him, do it immediately. Two, they said there had never been a better team guy. Three, they felt he was tremendously talented, that for whatever reason he had been asked to take a secondary role."
By chance, Holmes was the first of the three running backs the Chiefs scheduled for an interview that February. He arrived with a legal pad with 15 very specific questions for Peterson and Vermeil.
"Not obnoxious questions, good, smart questions," Peterson remembered. "He was very, very impressive. After he left, Dick and I both said, 'We don't need to look any further.' "
At the outset, the Chiefs, like the Longhorns and Ravens before them, didn't quite appreciate what they had in Holmes. In fact, fullback Tony Richardson had the same amount of carries (15) as Holmes did through the first two games last year.
"Dick (Vermeil) was on (offensive coordinator) Al Saunders to give the ball to the playmaker," Peterson said. "Halfway through the season, the coaches all of a sudden discovered that the more Priest Holmes touched the ball, the better he got. He certainly demonstrated to everyone here he's capable of carrying the load and being the every-down running back."
Holmes rushed for 1,555 yards and, with 614 yards in receptions, finished with a combined total of 2,169 yards -- 22 more than Faulk, the gold standard of versatility -- to become the first undrafted player since the 49ers' Joe "The Jet" Perry in 1954 to lead the league in both categories. Faulk, who is on pace to gain 2,000 combined yards for an unprecedented fifth season, has never cleared the 2,500 yard threshold that Holmes is on pace to break.
Where credit is due
"His modesty is sincere," Peterson said. "His emphasis toward spreading the credit to the other players is so refreshing."
Peterson laughed out loud.
"In these days, with the players we all have to deal with … 'Understated' probably is not an appropriate word, but it's not far off."
Every Monday during the season, Holmes flies from Kansas City to San Antonio to spend time with his sons De'Andre, 9, and Jevokan, 5. Holmes, who is single, said he is motivated by the unhappy memory of a childhood without a father; the first time he saw his father, he was in a casket.
Holmes isn't making Marshall Faulk money, but when he was voted into his first Pro Bowl last season he invited the entire team to Hawaii. He eventually paid the way for a dozen teammates.
Last spring, when a prominent NFL player bailed out of a Memorial Day weekend charity banquet at the last minute, Peterson, chairman of the board of trustees for the Pop Warner Little Scholars program, didn't panic. He called Holmes, who had played Pop Warner growing up in San Antonio.
"He said, 'I've never been to Disney World -- I'd be honored to go,' " Peterson said. "It was extremely short notice and I'm sure he had plans. Most guys would ask about the expenses, the stipend, but it never even crossed his mind. That's just Priest."
On Wednesday nights, Holmes teaches chess to children at Kansas City's Boys and Girls Club.
Clearly, Holmes spreads himself thin, but so far there's enough to keep everyone satisfied. There are concerns, however, that his enormous on-field workload could have dire consequences.
Through eight games, Holmes has a combined 241 touches in the Chiefs' 501 offensive plays. That's 48 percent of the load. Moreover, he has produced 1,297 yards of the offense's 3,056 yards, or 42.4 percent. That compares favorably to New Orleans' Deuce McAllister (42.0 percent), San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (41.8), the Rams' Faulk (39.9), Miami's Williams (38.1) and Cincinnati's Corey Dillon (35.3).
Much has been made in Kansas City of Holmes' workload, particularly those 51 catches out of the backfield. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Chiefs' second-leading receiver, has 33 catches, and wide receivers Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton have combined for a total of only 38 catches. The coaching staff points out that most of Holmes' catches occur when quarterback Trent Green's first and second options downfield aren't available.
Holmes is on pace for 482 touches, which is only 10 fewer than the numbing NFL record set by Tampa Bay's James Wilder in 1984. Vermeil and Saunders are on record as saying they're not worried about Holmes wearing down in the second half, but Peterson has other thoughts.
"When Jimmy Johnson drafted Emmitt Smith," he said, "I could not believe how many touches he got. I said 'He won't last four years.' What's it been, 13 seasons?
"I'll be candid with you, I do worry. I'm the president of this team and I always worry about wearing the guy out. The coaches say no, but I'm still going to worry about it. The problem is, until teams start to take him away, it's a great option. He makes more yards after the first hit than anyone I've seen.
"He's always been special, but now everybody knows it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.