- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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When Priest Holmes was running up those ridiculous fantasy football numbers the past two seasons, the cynics wondered when the other shoe would drop.
Sure enough, the Kansas City running back injured his right hip Dec. 12 against the Broncos. When doctors opened him up in late March, they removed soft tissue and bone fragments, leaving fantasy fans a little nervous about Holmes' potential for production.
Fear not. Holmes is right about where you'd expect him to be. In three games, he's run 62 times for 296 yards and caught 13 passes for another 171 yards. That's a total of 467 yards from scrimmage. In the NFL, where a yard might be the most precious real estate in the world, only the Baltimore Ravens' Jamal Lewis (507) has more, and it took a 295-yard rushing record against Cleveland to get him there.
Moreover, Holmes has scored seven touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 37 -- 11 more than the single-season record of 26 by Marshall Faulk in 2000.
Here is the frightening thing: 1) Holmes is not fully recovered from the injury and its aftermath and, 2) he has been on the field for 30 percent fewer snaps than last year. The idea, according to Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders, is to produce the same prodigious numbers with fewer plays, less wear and tear on the athlete who will turn 30 on Oct. 7.
"The statistics probably verify that Priest has fully recovered from the injury and is back to playing just as well," Saunders said Thursday morning from his office at Arrowhead Stadium. "But in terms of cardio-conditioning and taking a full load in practice, he's still recovering. He lost eight months of his base, and that takes time to get back. I'd say he's closing the gap."
Even before Holmes was injured, Saunders and head coach Dick Vermeil had been discussing ways to take some pressure off their star. During the offseason they decided to utilize running backs Tony Richardson, Derrick Blaylock and Omar Easy more often in a conscious effort to limit Holmes' snaps by 30 percent.
"It's much better to have him tackled by 195-pound defensive backs than trying to block 260-pound linebackers," Saunders explained. "By limiting his snaps -- but not his touches -- you're reducing the amount of contact. That helps everyone out in the long run."
In other words, less is more of the same. The early returns are remarkable.
Last year through the first three games, Holmes was on the field for 177 snaps. This year? He's taken a modest 123, which means he's played 54 fewer snaps.
"That's an entire game," Saunders said. "And yet, the production has been the same. It's like the Randy [Moss] Ratio in reverse."
Running toward history
The NFL exacts a horrific toll on running backs.
Earl Campbell rushed for 9,407 yards in eight seasons, but today he has difficulty walking. Last year Curtis Martin became only the second running back to clear 1,000 yards in his first eight seasons -- following Barry Sanders -- but this year it is apparent he has lost something more than just a step.
Holmes, a solid 5 feet 9 inches, 213 pounds, has been carrying that kind of load since he landed in Kansas City three years ago as a free agent.
In 2001, he became the first undrafted player to lead the NFL in rushing, with 1,555 yards on 327 carries. In 2002, he broke the franchise record with 1,615 yards on 313 carries -- in 14 games. In the Chiefs' offensive scheme, Holmes is also a frequent dump-off choice for quarterback Trent Green. He caught 62 for 614 yards in 2001 and 70 for 672 in 2002.
"I actually enjoy it," Holmes said of the work load in an ESPN.com chat Monday night. "That's the responsibility of a running back. It's a warrior position. You are constantly being hit by all 11 defenders. When they talk about being overused, this is just the media getting excited about me beating the touchdown record. It was just one way for them to run with it in the media.
"You won't find too many running backs complaining about getting too many carries. If you are in a groove, you want to stay there."
The Chiefs, 3-0 for the first time in seven seasons, are right there with him.
Kansas City has scored 110 points, the most in the franchise's first three games since 1966, when Hank Stram, Len Dawson, Otis Taylor and Mike Garrett were the dominant personalities. That team, it should be pointed out, went 11-2-1 in the AFL West and reached the very first Super Bowl.
Holmes started quickly last year, too, drawing all kinds of historical comparisons. At the season's midpoint, he had 241 touches, which projected to 482, only 10 fewer than the NFL record set by James Wilder in 1984. As it turned out, Holmes finished with 383 touches and, even projecting the two games he missed, would have reached 437.
This year, his 25 touches per game (projecting to 400 for the season) is under last year's 27.36 average, but Saunders said that number is likely to increase as Holmes' stamina and strength increases. Holmes is that rare athlete who seems to get better the more he gets the ball.
Last year, Holmes scored 15 touchdowns in the first eight games (more than seven entire teams) and, despite missing the final two games, finished with 24. Besides Faulk, only Emmitt Smith (25 in 1995 with Dallas) and the Redskins' John Riggins (24 in 1983) accomplished that feat. This year, if Holmes can stay healthy, the record appears to be in jeopardy.
"One record I feel I will be able to come in reach of is the touchdown record," Holmes said. "If I'm scoring touchdowns and the team is scoring touchdowns, we will be a more successful club."
One thing going for Holmes is the relatively low mileage on his powerful legs. In his first season in Baltimore, 1997, he didn't carry the ball once. Despite clearing 1,000 yards in 1998 as the featured back, he became a backup in 2000 when the Ravens drafted Lewis in the first round.
"At the time in the conference and our division, you had [Jerome] Bettis, [Corey] Dillon, Eddie George," Holmes said. "When they got Jamal, he was the blueprint they wanted. I didn't match up as well. Plus, the running style there was three yards and a cloud of dust, and that's just not my style."
In his four seasons in Baltimore, Holmes carried only 459 times for 2,102 yards. By comparison, the Jets' Martin carried 1,327 times for 5,086. It's hard to believe, but Martin is only five months older than Holmes.
If the Chiefs continue to limit his snaps, Holmes thinks he can play for at least five more seasons.
"Getting to a championship is my goal and making that happen for Kansas City," he said. "Not being an every-down back has given me more longevity. Injuries are a part of the game, but it's just a matter of your perseverance and how you can bounce back."
Saunders raves about Holmes' perseverance and his work ethic. He recognizes Holmes' gifts and hopes to have them around longer with a more judicious management of his playing time.
"It's like a base of conditioning for a marathoner," Saunders said. "Everything accumulates And, if you save him a game here or there, you can add a few seasons to his career. Ultimately, that's what you'd like to do."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Priest Holmes is having another great season. The trick for the Chiefs is making sure he can sustain it.