State Your Case: Priest Holmes

Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes (31) runs with the football during a week 14 NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in Kansas City, Missouri on December 8, 2002. The Rams defeated the Chiefs 49-10. (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)

(Photos courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

I can understand the Hall-of-Fame campaign for Terrell Davis. What I can’t understand is the lack of a campaign for Priest Holmes.

Davis was the best running back in the NFL in the late 1990s with the Denver Broncos. But he suffered a career-threatening knee injury in 1999, leaving a void in the running-back penthouse. Holmes filled that void in 2001, becoming the best running back in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Both Davis and Holmes had three-year windows of brilliance – Davis from 1996-98 and Holmes from 2001-03. Both went to three Pro Bowls during those windows. Both won an NFL rushing title during those windows. But there are two major differences.

First, Davis became one of only seven backs to rush for 2,000 yards in a single NFL season. Holmes did not. Secondly, Davis played with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Holmes did not.

But stack the two backs head-to-head during those three-year windows of brilliance. Davis rushed the ball for 5,296 yards, Holmes only 4,590. But Davis carried the ball 146 more times. Davis rushed for 49 touchdowns and scored 53 overall. Holmes rushed for 56 touchdowns and scored 61 overall. Davis caught 103 passes for 814 yards. Holmes caught twice as many passes (206) for double the yardage (1,976).

Holmes led the NFL in yards from scrimmage twice. Davis failed to do so. Holmes led the NFL in scoring once. Davis failed to do so. Holmes led the NFL in touchdowns twice. Davis did so once.

This isn’t to say Davis doesn’t deserve discussion. He does – and he’s been getting it. Davis has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for 10 years and has been a semifinalist all 10 years and a finalist twice. Holmes has been eligible for the Hall of Fame four years, and he’s not getting any attention. He has never once been a semifinalist, much less a finalist. His name didn’t even appear on the preliminary list of 94 candidates for the Hall’s Class of 2017. His career already appears to have been forgotten.

And it shouldn’t be. Holmes became one of the NFL’s most unlikely success stories.

Holmes was the feature back at the University of Texas in 1994, but missed the 1995 season with a knee injury. In his absence, future Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams claimed the position with a 1,000-yard freshman season. So Holmes spent his final season on campus as a backup to Williams in 1996, then went undrafted by the NFL in 1997.

Holmes signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens but suited up for only seven games in his rookie year and never touched the football. With the departures of Bam Morris and Earnest Byner that offseason, Holmes emerged as the starter and rushed for 1,008 yards in 1998. Errict Rhett replaced him in the backfield 1999, and then the Ravens drafted Jamal Lewis in 2000 on their way to a Super Bowl.

When Holmes became a free agent in 2001, the Chiefs signed him to a low-dollar, low-risk deal – five years at $7.5 million. And his career took off. He led the NFL in rushing that season with 1,555 yards, then led the league in touchdowns in both 2002 (24) and 2003 (27). He rushed for 1,615 yards and caught 70 passes in 2002, then rushed for 1,420 yards and caught 74 more passes in 2003.

“He didn’t have gifted speed,” said Dick Vermeil, who coached Holmes in Kansas City, “but he had gifted balance and vision. He had unbelievable balance and vision. He had such great patience and awareness, either instinctively or because he studied it so well, that gave him such a great feel for how everything was going to be blocked and how the defense was going to react. He’s probably better than a lot of guys who are already in (Canton).”

But, like Davis, a knee injury diminished his greatness. Holmes was well on his way to another NFL rushing title in 2004, leading comfortably at the season’s midway point with 892 yards and 14 touchdowns. But he suffered his injury in the eighth game against Tampa Bay.

Holmes rehabilitated his knee and returned for the 2005 season but suffered an injury to his spinal cord in the seventh game against San Diego. That ended his season, and Holmes missed all of 2006 during his recovery. He attempted a return in 2007 but retired after four games with an aggravation of his neck injury.

Both Davis and Holmes were NFL starters for only four full seasons. Both had four 1,000-yard seasons. Davis rushed for more yards (6,413) than Holmes (5,598), with 150 more carries in those four seasons. But Holmes caught more passes (249) than Davis (152) and scored more touchdowns (68) than Davis (61).

Career-wise, counting all their injury-interrupted years, Holmes touched the football in nine NFL seasons, Davis in seven. Holmes rushed for more yards (8,172) in his career than Davis (7,607), caught more passes (339-169) and scored more touchdowns (94-65). And Holmes never had the benefit of playing with a John Elway.

This is no knock on Terrell Davis. His career deserves discussion.

But so does the career of Priest Holmes.


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  1. Rich Quodomine
    October 18, 2016

    Great piece of work, I didn’t know how good Holmes was, even though I watched him a fair amount. Of course, other than injuries, the biggest issue is the lack of titles. TD has more titles, he’s also a media member. That’s why you never hear from Priest Holmes, I don’t know of any media efforts since his career ended.

    This begs the larger question: What do we all do with injured players who were truly great for brief periods? There’s enough backlog for players who have had a lengthy career and are great but were on weaker teams.

    • Rick Gosselin
      October 18, 2016

      If you’re going to consider short careers, Holmes deserves discussion. Just as Davis deserves discussion. The relatively short window of greatness is what Davis is bucking in his bid for a bust.

  2. bachslunch
    October 18, 2016

    Good article. Here’s how I see the 90s-00s RBs: the best are in (Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis) or are getting in (LaDanian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James). Terrell Davis will likely make it as well — I go back and forth on him, though one might maybe argue he has a slightly better peak and the postseason prowess none of the other short career backs have to give him a leg up. What’s left are a bunch of fine RBs who fall short of these folks (compilers who didn’t compile enough, short career guys who didn’t have as high a peak, guys who fall in between): Corey Dillon, Tiki Barber, Shaun Alexander, Priest Holmes, Rickey Watters, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Rickey Williams, Clinton Portis, Thomas Jones, and Ahman Green among others. Given the number of RBs already in from the period and the fact that it’s really hard to make a compelling case to vault one of these guys above the rest, I’m not sure I’d elect any of them. No reason they shouldn’t be discussed, of course.

    • Rick Gosselin
      October 18, 2016

      For a three-year window, there wasn’t a better back in the NFL than Davis. For a three-year window, there wasn’t a better back in the NFL than Holmes. The question is — is a three-year window of greatness enough for a bust in Canton? If it is, then Holmes needs to be discussed.

  3. Sam Goldenberg
    October 18, 2016

    I agree with bachslunch, I just don’t think Holmes did enough over his career to warrant the HOF. A three year window of brilliance is just not enough, especially considering the group of backs that bachslunch named above. I really don’t think Holmes was significantly better than any of these guys and I think Dillon, Barber and Alexander may have been better. I also think Terrell Davis falls short as well. A shame that his career was cut short by knee injury, but his comparison is Gale Sayers and Davis was just not nearly as good as Sayers.

    • Rick Gosselin
      October 18, 2016

      It’s going to be difficult for Holmes to get enshrined. It’s also going to be difficult for Davis. But at least there’s discussion and debate on Davis. There is no such D&D on Holmes. Whether they belong or not, who knows. But they both deserve to be discussed.

  4. Justin
    October 18, 2016

    The biggest difference between Davis’ and Holmes’ respective HOF credentials is that Davis is the greatest post-season RB in history. His 142.5 yards per game is significantly better than anyone else in history (Arian Foster is second at 128.8). Is it Holmes fault that his teams didn’t make the post-season more? Of course not. Would he have had the same numbers as Davis if he had made the playoffs more? Maybe. In Holmes’ lone playoff game as a starter, Holmes ran for 176 yards in a loss. However, the fact remains that Davis played in 8 playoffs games, gained 1,140 yards, and scored 12 touchdowns. That is effectively a very good “extra season” for Davis in the most important games of his career. To minimize those numbers, effectively skews the Davis / Holmes comparison. It isn’t as close as the regular season numbers suggest and is the difference (for me) for why Davis should be inducted and Holmes should be remembered as a very good, but not HOF running back (and I say this as a UT fan who loved watching the old Longhorn backs tear up the NFL).

  5. bachslunch
    October 19, 2016

    Also, depending on how much one values all-decade teams, it should be noted that Davis is on one and Holmes isn’t. I think all-decade teams are part of the whole picture and can be useful, myself, but for those who very highly value them, that might be an issue.

  6. October 20, 2016

    I just don’t see it. Waaay too many guys get in already. This is Valhalla. Priest was very good, obviously, but was he one of the best four or five players in the game year in and year out? Is it impossible to tell the story of the NFL without mentioning his name? The answer to both questions is no. Really good, really fun player but no.

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