Holmes runs to records with style

November 23, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

CINCINNATI -- Shortly after producing the best rushing day in the NFL this season, Priest Holmes thanked a Baltimore auto dealer for allowing him to rent a Ford Explorer.

"Now I don't have to worry about my car breaking down," Holmes said yesterday after the Ravens' 20-13 victory over Cincinnati, delighted to announce that his 1988 Mustang -- "Duke" -- is in temporary retirement.

The whole thing sounded preposterous -- star running backs can afford as many cars as they want, even dealerships -- but Holmes is earning $180,000, the second-year minimum.

Maybe he's the Ravens' running back of the future. Maybe he's only Barry Sanders against Sieve-cinnati.

Whatever, Holmes is the kind of player you root for to succeed.

He's a humble back who promises to take his offensive line to dinner, even if he can't afford it. He's a single father who vows to be as patient with fickle coaches as he is with his 5-year-old son, De'Andre.

A devout Christian, he says he is blessed when holes open like the Red Sea. A model teammate, he churns out 53 yards on a clock-killing final drive but takes his greatest pleasure in making his veteran quarterback smile.

Maybe he's too good to be true, considering that his two finest games have come against the team with the NFL's worst rushing defense. But he's the Ravens' most improved player, and yesterday he earned a place in Baltimore history.

Holmes' 227-yard effort surpassed Terrell Davis' 208-yard performance against Seattle on Oct. 11 as the best in the NFL this season. And Davis' 215-yard effort on Sept. 21, 1997, as the best rushing day against Cincinnati. And Norm Bulaich's 198-yard effort in 1971 as the best by a Baltimore NFL player.

Impressive stuff, but hold off any comparisons between Holmes, an undrafted free agent, and Davis, a seventh-round pick. Holmes gained 99 yards against Oakland's second-ranked defense on Nov. 8, but most of his success has come against the Bengals, a team that couldn't stop the Montreal Alouettes.

In his two Cincinnati games, Holmes has run 63 times for 400 yards and three touchdowns -- the Ravens' only three rushing touchdowns of the season. In his other games, he has run 90 times for 290 yards and no touchdowns -- 3.22 yards per carry, as opposed to 6.34 against the Bengals.

What makes him so tough against Cincinnati?

"I don't think that it is Priest," Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said. "He is a good football player, but I don't think we match up well against their offensive line.

"There were holes to be had out there, and he made some nice runs. I don't want to take anything away from him. They don't run anything unusual. They just do it very well against us."

You explain it: The Bengals held Minnesota's Robert Smith to 58 yards rushing the previous week, and Holmes was benched in the second half of the Ravens' 14-13 loss to San Diego, finishing with six carries for 9 yards.

The Ravens' coaches stayed with the run yesterday. The offensive line played to its potential for a change. But Holmes can't simply be discredited, not when he carried 11 times on the final drive, not when he had first-half runs of 56 and 38 yards, not when he dived over the pile to score on a fourth-and-one.

"I have a lot of faith in Priest," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "I think he is a premier NFL back -- I shouldn't say premier, but he is a good NFL back. We haven't seen the best of him. We still haven't seen him as a pass receiver. He blocks well. He has pass-receiving potential. We just haven't thrown him the ball."

Running backs coach Al Lavan is equally impressed.

"He doesn't have great speed, but he plays quick, which is just as important as having good speed," Lavan said. "Very seldom is he knocked back for a guy his size [5 feet 9, 205 pounds]. He has a good running style, good body lean, good body form. A guy with that style can sometimes break more tackles than much bigger players.

"[Tony] Dorsett was kind of like that, a little guy with a real good running style. It makes him hard to hit. Even when you've got him cornered, you don't always get a good shot at him. And as long as you can prevent that good, solid shot, you're going to make yards."

Holmes makes no predictions on his future, only that he will continue with his fiercely determined approach. He gushed over his line's performance yesterday -- "any running back watching the game would have loved to be in my position" -- but he has worked hard to get to this position and isn't about to stop now.

He spoke yesterday of watching Dorsett while growing up in San Antonio, of copying a spin move from Emmitt Smith that he noticed in a television commercial two years ago. Asked about his own endorsement possibilities, he smiled. "If I keep running like that, I know it's bound to happen," he said.

He expects to keep running like that.

He expects a lot.

"This is the type of game he needed -- he needed another big game for his confidence," assistant running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "He can only go up because of his potential. He's an excellent athlete. He makes adjustments quickly. I'd like to see him put his personal stamp on this position, make it his."

At this stage of his career, Holmes probably should be a third-down specialist, but the Ravens lack a big-time back, and they've moved him ahead of Errict Rhett and Jay Graham.

Two games do not make a career, especially two games against Sieve-cinnati. But Priest Holmes already has graduated from an '88 Mustang to a rented Ford Explorer, from free-agent obscurity to Baltimore NFL history.

Why bet against him now?

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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