After a season full of uncertainty, extreme highs and lows, and the mix of blowouts and nail-biters we’ve grown accustomed to in the Vermeil era, we can look back and see one defining moment for the future of the Chiefs.
In week eight, Priest Holmes left the game against the San Diego Chargers midway through a season in which he did not have a single 100 rushing yard game, nor had he amassed 120 combined yards in any game. Granted, he was on a 2-1 rotation with another back, but he was averaging less than 3.8 yards per carry – his worst average by half a yard since entering the NFL in 1997. At 32 years old, he discovered that he had a spinal injury that would end his 9th year in the league, his 5th with the Chiefs.
Immediately, the “diamond” flashing Larry Johnson emerged to show the world that he was wearing no proverbial diaper, and in fact he may not have been wearing one in the first place. Pumping out nine straight 100 yard games and scoring 16 rushing touchdowns in the process (not to mention a spectacular 28 yard catch and run for a touchdown against San Diego in week 16), Johnson left no doubt as to who was the future of Lamar Hunt’s great franchise. The great Priest Holmes had suffered an injury that would end his career, and everyone decided Carl Peterson had done the right thing in picking Johnson with the 27th overall pick in 2003, rather than the much anticipated defensive pick. The running back controversy that began early in the season with the Chief’s rotation of Holmes and Johnson had solved itself.
Then, last week, Priest Holmes stopped by the Chief’s website office for an interview. When asked about new coach Herman Edwards, Holmes said he was going to meet with him right after the interview. “I like the fact that he loves his veteran players,” Holmes said, “so it’s going to be exciting playing for him.” He also spoke of his rehabilitation, which consisted mostly of rest with the type of injury he sustained. Any way you can read into this interview, Holmes plans on being back. Despite all of the speculation and media reports that Holmes was probably done, which would make decisions easier in KC and would pave the way for Johnson’s happiness and thus his future with the Chiefs, Holmes is going to come back to Kansas City and play for Herman Edwards.
Thus the unavoidable question: Now that Johnson has proven himself, what do the Chiefs do with Priest Holmes?
Over the past five years, Holmes has been a premier back in Kansas City. Setting franchise and league records seemed to come naturally for him. However, five years in the NFL amounts to a lot of hits and even more wear and tear. This is especially true on a body that has already suffered multiple injuries and surgeries on the legs that make their owner his living. Holmes has not finished more than half a season in two years, and has finished 16 games just twice in his five years with the Chiefs.
Johnson, on the other hand, is young blood. He doesn’t have an extensive injury history like Holmes. This past year could be considered his “rookie” year, as this was the first time he started more than half of a season. In this year he not only proved himself talent-wise, but he also showed his ability to mature quickly. He developed the type of saintly patience for holes to open that we saw from Priest Holmes in the past. He quit talking to the local media, knowing they were often there to incite him. He gave credit to his offensive line. And in the process, he ran for 1750 yards with two games of over 200 yards. He finished the season as the AFC rushing champion and had 20 rushing touchdowns. Those stats, during a season in which he started only nine games, are much better than Priest Holmes’ first season with the Chiefs in which he started 16 games.
What SHOULD the Chiefs do? The Chiefs should take Holmes back next year only on the following conditions: there is no more rotation, and the pay will be that of a strictly backup running back. Most fans have loved watching Priest Holmes over the years, and would want to see him end his career in Red. I agree completely.
However, if it’s going to cost valuable cap space and be to the overall detriment of the team, that can’t be allowed. If that is the case, the Chiefs should find someone who will take Holmes with his current contract and give them a mid-round draft pick in return. However, with injury problems and age, the trade value of Holmes has diminished to a late second day pick at best.
Thus, the Chiefs should keep Holmes in a purely backup role at purely backup cost. This does not mean put him in for short yardage or red zone situations. Johnson can do as well or better than Holmes in these areas. This means when Johnson says he’s tired, put Holmes in until Johnson is ready to go again. Johnson will be happy, and he will be more productive. At this stage I would risk saying that a somewhat tired Johnson is as effective as a fresh Holmes. Johnson’s fourth quarter numbers show this.
What WILL the Chiefs do? After watching Curtis Martin continuously plugged into the starting position for the Jets last year despite being admittedly injured and far from 100%, I’m afraid that Priest Holmes will be paid too much money and play too large of a role. The statistics speak in favor of LJ, the injuries speak in favor of LJ, and age speaks in favor of LJ. Yet Holmes will likely retain his salary or restructure for a little less. Even a little less is far too much.
Edwards will probably use Holmes in short yardage and red zone situations. Admittedly, Holmes does have a nose for the end-zone. Even when he was at Texas his senior year behind Ricky Williams, he had a disproportionate number of touchdowns in relation to his number of yards and carries. In his third year with the Chiefs he set the recently broken NFL record for the number of rushing touchdowns in a single season with 27. He has averaged over nine rushing touchdowns per year over his career, and that includes two years in a reserve role, two half-seasons, and one season getting acquainted with a new system. Herm will see this and watch the film of Holmes sliding his feet into the end-zone after patiently waiting for his blockers to get into position over and over again. Because of this he’ll plug Holmes in during red-zone situations and, as I said before, pay him too much to do it when we have a younger player that could do it just as well.
Herm does have a love for veterans, and Holmes is a veteran with an elite career behind him. Unfortunately, those days are coming to close. Holmes’ elite past should now give way to Larry Johnson’s promising future. Priest Holmes should assume a backup role and backup pay. There’s no disrespect involved. He won’t be going down easy. He’ll be going out in style over the next few years, having mentored the next great Kansas City running back.