Holmes flashes old ability as Chiefs' offense sputters

KANSAS CITY -- The hill sits down the road and looms over three practice fields. For 12 weeks, while the football world rolled its eyes at Priest Holmes, he stared at the top and took off running.

There were no coaches to bark at him, no fitness types with stopwatches. If he climbed off that hill and headed straight out of town, no one would have been watching.

"No doubts," Holmes said. "No doubts.

"Those little workouts, they accumulate and become something big. It's just like a bank account. If you put money in there and you continue to do that, it grows."

In a flashback to simpler, happier times in Kansas City, Holmes returned to the starting lineup Sunday, two years after a helmet-to-helmet collision nearly ended his career, 30-some games after a younger running back made Chiefs fans forget about him. With dusted-off No. 31 jerseys filling every corner of Arrowhead Stadium and chants of, "PREEEEST," floating in the muggy air, Holmes rushed for 65 yards on 20 carries -- exceeding nearly every expectation.

But as the stadium emptied midway through the fourth quarter, two things became obvious: This isn't 2005, and even one of the NFL's biggest comeback stories can't fix what ails Kansas City.

How can a 34-year-old running back with surgically repaired knees, a rehabbed hip and lingering neurological questions bring back the past? The Chiefs had one of the NFL's most explosive offensives when Holmes went down 25 months ago. They had Willie Roaf and Will Shields and the mad scientist, Al Saunders, scribbling plays.

Now, finding the end zone is a weekly adventure. The Chiefs turned over the ball four times Sunday, couldn't muster a touchdown against the league's worst run defense and have found themselves in the middle of a quarterback conundrum after a 27-11 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Boos rained down on quarterback Damon Huard early in the third quarter, and within seconds, he was sacked and stripped, and Nate Webster ran in for a 17-yard fumble return touchdown. Huard was frozen on his knees for at least a minute after the hit. The Chiefs' offense has been that way for months.

Herm Edwards came to Kansas City last year yearning to change the culture of the defense, once a punch line in the AFC West. That problem appears to be fixed. Now the pendulum has swung to the other side of the ball.

Asked if he would have pulled Huard even if the quarterback hadn't re-aggravated a neck injury, Edwards said, "Uhhh, yeah."

He won't decide on whether the switch to Brodie Croyle is permanent until at least Monday. Chiefs fans already have cast their not-so-silent ballots. Croyle, a second-year quarterback from Alabama, completed 17 of 30 passes for 162 yards and an interception. Huard has been dogged by protection problems for much of the season and spent the better part of the Week 9 game against the Green Bay Packers on his back. But the biggest concern heading into Sunday was at running back.

The Chiefs lost Larry Johnson to a foot injury last week and traded backup Michael Bennett to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month. It meant that Holmes, who was supposed to be a change-of-pace, 10-carries-per-game back, would have to carry a much bigger load.

Three months ago, even that role seemed deeply ambitious. Holmes decided on a comeback days before training camp and showed up out of football shape. Some wondered if the 34-year-old Pro Bowler would even make the roster.

Some critics wondered if he was setting himself up for failure.

"Just don't ever count him out," Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson said. "You're foolish if you do. It happened in Texas, Baltimore and Kansas City, and when it happens, it's kind of his motivation, you know?

"I've said from the beginning, if he could be 75 to 80 percent of what he was, he can help this team win. I definitely think he is there. Without any question."

Holmes showed flashes of his Pro Bowl days when he ripped off an 11-yard run to start the game. He also might have forgotten his limitations when he backpedaled and changed direction on a sweep that started on the Denver 5-yard line and ended with Holmes being tackled 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Holmes still finished with a respectable rushing total. And he still is an impressive blocker. The way the Chiefs' offense has been going, that is progress.

"He ran pretty well," Edwards said. "That's a lot for him all of the sudden. He hit some holes and made some on his own and made some guys miss."

As Holmes stood at his locker late Sunday, the one next to Johnson's, it was an odd sort of reversal. Two years ago, Johnson took over for an injured Holmes and exploded into the record books.

Holmes is still eyeing the next hill. After Sunday, it looks much steeper for the Chiefs.

"He has a great will, great desire," Edwards said. "Everybody was thinking, 'Wow, this is going to be a hard climb.' He did it, and it's a tribute to him and what he's done."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.