- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Chiefs players assembled for a casual March meeting. Those in attendance listened with shock as Priest Holmes spoke. The meeting was to discuss team and individual goals. Holmes dropped a bombshell.
"Just so you know, I'm thinking about retiring," Holmes said.
This wasn't a joke. He was serious. The Chiefs workhorse back had more on his mind than carrying the Chiefs offense on his muscular back. His father was in Iraq and Priest worried. In addition, each fall becomes more difficult because his family stays in Texas.
"This is the first time it ever crossed my mind," Holmes said of retirement. "Coach (Dick) Vermeil talked about it and what you should say. He said, 'Hey, it was just a feeling. Give it some time. If you feel that way when you come back, let me know.' "
Often, Holmes isn't a man of words. His actions are his communication tools. He got away from football for a week or two. But when the team reassembled for offseason training days and mini-camps, Holmes showed up and worked, never telling his teammates his thoughts of retirement were gone. Chiefs players hold their breathe every day.
"He never really officially said he wasn't retiring," quarterback Trent Green said. "He kept showing up for workouts. When he showed up, we thought it was a good start. More guys talked to him about it and what he's going to do. We're glad to have him."
During the two-day scrimmage in Mankato against the Vikings, Holmes was involved and having fun. He had a mini-cam working feverishly so he can put action on his Web site, "31teampriest.com." Vermeil tries to limit Holmes to one practice a day. After all, he's 30 now and is a year removed from coming back from hip surgery.
"One thing to say is I'm definitely in shape," Holmes said. "A year ago in April, I was on crutches. In May, I wasn't running. It wasn't until the second week in July before I started running miles. Two weeks later, camp started."
Though Holmes has done his best to get his body right, he's even working harder on his psyche. His father monitors stations for convey going in and out of Iraq.
"There is so much of a heavy attack there," Holmes said. "There are more off-the-field distractions for me. With my father being overseas and being separated from my family, it's tough. It's tough knowing I'm not able to be there for them during the season. There are so many responsibilities off the field."
Vermeil understands. He left the game he loves in his prime, too. As a coach and a friend, Vermeil can only be a supporter and advisor.
"He has a lot on his plate," Vermeil said. "Too many things can be overwhelming."
The fact Holmes shows up each day and works as hard if not harder than any other player is a relief to the 13-3 team. After all, this isn't a team needing to worry about the offense. Ten of the 11 starters are back, right tackle John Tait being the only missing piece. The Chiefs need to concentrate their efforts on improving their defense.
Gunther Cunningham was brought back to make the Chiefs defensive minds right. Perhaps no defensive line underachieved more than the Chiefs the past couple of seasons. Players blamed the scheme and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson was subsequently replaced.
Robinson ran a complex system that put players in position of confusion more than confident and the results were embarrassing. The Chiefs won 13 games, but their defense ranked 29th. Things were so bad commissioner Paul Tagliabue made jokes about them. Asked at his annual state of the league address about the mugging Colts receivers took from Patriots corners during the AFC championship game, Tagliabue dismissed the thoughts by saying the Patriots weren't playing the Chiefs defense.
When Tagliabue attended a camp practice to talk to the team, linebacker Shawn Barber had to be held back from charging the stage and sacking the Commish. Fellow linebacker Mike Maslowski asked him if he had anything to say now about the defense.
"He gave the politically correct answer, 'Let's look forward to next season,' " Barber said. "We felt he was like a politician. He's given the same spiel to 31 other teams. Talk to me as a person. Don't talk to me as a team."
Defenders grumbled and were mad. Talk about motivation. Cunningham, a master motivator, got a year's worth of speeches from that Friday afternoon setting with the commissioner. Cunningham overloaded them with two volumes of plays consuming more than 600 pages. Defenders can gain strength just lifting the carry bags that goes with the playbooks.
"I don't think they had very much confidence ," Cunningham said. "Everybody puts it on Eric Hicks and says, he's disappeared. He didn't. He hasn't had very good guys to play with. You got Ryan Sims. He didn't have the opportunity to do what he wanted to do. He's always playing on a center."
The defensive line was a mess. Hicks had 14 sacks when he last played for Cunningham. As a group, the starting line combined for just 14 sacks last year and the schemes got silly. Defensive end Vonnie Holliday had to drop into zones for pass coverages on zone blitzes. Front office scouts never had reports on ends and their dropbacks. What was Robinson doing?
"I was the nose tackle, and last year I moved more side to side and I felt like I was the fourth linebacker," Sims said. "That's the first time I played nose tackle since my freshman year in college. I'm not a side-to-side guy. I did more reading. If a back came at me, my gap would be the same as a free linebacker would have. A pulling guard would block me, and that's why we got beat on the cutbacks every game."
Tempers bumbled over in a late regular season game against Minnesota when Sims got so frustrated with the scheme that he started to freelance. It caused a shouting match and near fight between Sims and Hicks.
"It was frustrating," Sims said. "They were killing us with the pass and the run. We were at the point in the season that everyone on defense was frustrated. We were winning but giving up 500 yards. This is a proud group on defense."
Hicks was frustrated, too. He had to line up at end inside the offensive tackle instead of where he lines up now, head up on a tight end.
"I was over the tackle in a five or six technique, and that makes the tackles' job a lot easier in blocking me," Sims said. "Once they latch their hands on you, you're done."
Cunningham has the defensive linemen attacking. Ends are wider, giving Sims a six to eight feet area to work the guard.
"It gives me a lot more space to move my guy," Sims said. "Now, I can try to drive and penetrate. I can make the offense commit."
No one understands the importance of defense more than Vermeil. It hurt him to fire Robinson, whom he considered a friend and a bright coach. In three seasons, Vermeil established the type of offense that worked for him in St. Louis. But the defense kept getting worse. Vermeil opted not to retire again because he felt a Super Bowl could be possible.
That won't happen unless the defense improves.
"There hasn't been a Super Bowl winner who didn't have a top 10 defense since the Raiders in 1984," Vermeil said. "We've got to be in the top 10."
Vermeil has gone on record as saying this was the most talented team he's assembled. The offense is set and each day, the defense grows closer together and improves. Seeing Tagliabue only reminded them of outside criticisms of their defense.
"We have talent, we have some depth," Vermeil said. "We're doing all the right things, but putting in a new defensive scheme against our offense is tough. Gunther has put in a basic defense. But in practice, they see 15 different formations in 15 snaps. There could be three kinds of movement before the snap It's tough on them."
Not as tough as last season because the players believe in the scheme. Now, the whole team has a better chance to succeed. Those odds are better with Priest, who has so far decided to stick around despite some pressures off the field.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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