State Your Case: Priest Holmes

A career that mirrors that of Hall of Famer Terrell Davis

(Published October 2016)

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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