OAKLAND, Calif. – So here were the Kansas City Chiefs, trying to close out a game that would mean the difference between ending the day in first or last place in the wide-open AFC West, putting their fate and the football in the hands of a man who hadn't suited up in nearly two years.
Herm Edwards is supposed to be a conservative coach, but this was like letting Uncle Louie the Lush carry the newborn out of the hospital.
And Priest Holmes, bless his rusty and resilient soul, made his coach look like a seer. Thrilling everyone on his team not named Larry Johnson, the 34-year-old halfback ripped around left end and muscled ahead for 8 yards that may go a long, long way toward raising his team from the ranks of the mediocre.
Such is life in a league in which two teams are playing for supremacy and a place in history while the other 30 slog it out for a bronze medal, with seemingly innocuous sequences like the one that played out at McAfee Coliseum late Sunday afternoon destined to determine who subsists into January.
As Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard said after KC's 12-10 victory over the Raiders, "This whole thing is a fight. Other than the Patriots and the Colts, anybody can beat anybody in this league on any given day. With our defense playing the way it is, if we on offense don't screw it up, we can win a lot of games."
That Kansas City ran a few key plays down the stretch of Sunday's game without Johnson, the former frustrated backup who skyrocketed to stardom once he assumed Holmes' featured role, wasn't so shocking to Edwards' players. While Holmes didn't get the Chiefs all the way home – after the Raiders forced a punt and drove to their 44, safety Jarrad Page's interception with 46 seconds remaining clinched the game for the visitors – seeing the franchise's career rushing leader in the huddle with the game on the line carried a multi-layered significance.
This wasn't just about Holmes making an emotional return from the devastating neck injury that was supposed to have ended his career on Oct. 30, 2005. Rather, for the Chiefs, Holmes' presence is viewed as a harbinger of hope. To them, having him back is a tangible indication that this team's offensive struggles, from coordinator Mike Solari's unpopular play-calling to Johnson's seeming aversion to protecting his quarterback, may be at least somewhat surmountable.
"Things are about to get very interesting, because we're looking at a full-fledged running back controversy here," one Chiefs veteran said Sunday. “(Johnson) hasn't been playing all that well, and he's not big on pass-blocking – and Priest has looked good in practice, like the Priest of old. They've got to get him in there, and it'll be interesting to see how (Johnson) responds, because I could definitely see a blowup coming."
As bleak as that assessment sounds, most Kansas City players managed to put a positive spin on the potentially awkward situation. It's not like the two men are on equal ground, anyway: Johnson, who ran for 112 yards on 24 carries against the Raiders, including a 54-yard burst on a deft cutback midway through the third quarter, is obviously the franchise's present and future, having signed a five-year contract extension in August that included a reported $19 million in guaranteed money.
Holmes, who admitted he was nervous before taking his first hit on Sunday, still has to prove he can handle the pounding on a protracted basis. He didn't do much in his first game back, getting nailed for a 6-yard loss on a screen pass and gaining just 9 yards on four carries.
To his teammates, however, Holmes' return went far beyond the stat sheet.
"When Priest first came into the game, the whole defense got up and stood on the sidelines to see what he was gonna do," veteran Kansas City cornerback Ty Law said. "He was looking great in practice this week, and we're a little disappointed he didn't get the ball more."
Star tight end Tony Gonzalez went even further, saying Holmes' return could be the key to shaking the team from its offensive slumber. The Chiefs, who at 4-3 hold a surprising lead in a bunched-up division over the Chargers (3-3), Broncos (3-3) and Raiders (2-4), have won four of their last five but have been held under 14 points in all but two games this season.
"I still think we're underachieving, especially on offense," Gonzalez said. "We have the talent to be much better, and now, with Priest back, there's no reason we can’t score 24 points a game. If we could've done that every game, we'd be undefeated, and people would be talking about us along with the Patriots and the Colts.
"Of course, there are reasons we're not undefeated. Our offense isn't playing the way it's supposed to play."
And whose fault is that?
"It's a combination of things," Gonzalez said. "It's guys missing assignments, and it has to do with the positions we're being put in."
That was a clear reference to Solari, the second-year offensive coordinator who has been privately criticized by several players in recent weeks. "I just said something (expressing dissatisfaction) to him a minute ago," Gonzalez said. "But the bottom line is, if a play is called we've got to execute it, myself included. On one play today, I didn't like the call and I didn't block my guy, and we didn't get the first down. That's on me."
By the time Gonzalez finished dressing at his locker he was smiling again, perhaps mindful that his team is in a position most observers didn't believe was realistic a couple of months ago, when the Chargers were supposed to be on par with the Pats and Colts. Though Kansas City made the playoffs as a wild card team in '06, Edwards' first season, the offseason departures of quarterback Trent Green and Pro Bowl guard Will Shields bolstered a general belief that the team was on the decline.
Featured during the summer on HBO's "Hard Knocks," the title seemed an apt one for the Chiefs as they proceeded to lose all four preseason games and opened the regular season with defeats to Houston and Chicago.
Now, heading into a bye weekend, they're one of many similarly matched contenders trying to transcend their flaws while dreaming of competing with the Big Two.
"People forget we were a playoff team last year," Gonzalez said. "Now Priest is back, and having him there to bust that run at the end of the game is a luxury. Once he gets going, we'll have one of the best one-two punches in the league. We can come at you with two different speeds.
"I hope it stays positive. It'll push Larry a little bit, and it should, but in a positive way. He shouldn't feel threatened, but it should make him better. Competition brings out the best in people."
On this day, in this competitive division, Holmes' presence may have been the difference between first and last.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Last year Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young provided one of the regular season's most memorable moments when his 39-yard touchdown run in overtime at Reliant Stadium stuffed it down the throats of his hometown team, the Houston Texans, who had passed him over in the NFL draft. This year, with Young sidelined by a strained quad, an episode of "Eight Is Enough" broke out, with Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas setting an NFL record for field goals in a game. Speaking of 1979, I love it when Chris Berman does his "My Bironas" thing to the tune of the Knack's smash single. After fighting back from a 25-point deficit with their backup quarterback only to lose on the final play, the Texans (3-4) could have related to another of the band's teen-angst tunes, "Frustrated."
• It took seven weeks, but in the wake of the Detroit Lions' 23-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to improve to 4-2, I'm willing to admit that this team might be semi-decent. And in the NFC, that means Detroit is a legitimate playoff contender – though I still have a hard time believing the Lions will roll into Chicago and secure a season sweep of the Bears next Sunday. Chicago saved its season, and may have officially destroyed Philadelphia's, when Brian Griese directed a 97-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes Sunday for a 19-16 road victory that improved the Bears to 3-4. Given Griese's emergence, Brian Urlacher believes that the Bears could do some damage in the season's second half, "if we (the defense) can get our (expletive) together," he said by text Sunday night.
• OK, I guess Reggie Bush can get the tough yards. And those 4 yards he got with 5:15 remaining Sunday could ultimately prove to be the 144 inches that get the Saints back to the playoffs.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Far be it from me to question anything about the 2007 Patriots, who've clearly got this pro football thing completely wired. But this whole pit bull persona they've got going is starting to creep me out. In general, I tend not to get all worked up about teams who get accused of running up the score, believing that if it bothers the opponents so much, they should consider trying to stop it from happening as a handy remedy. But I was on the sidelines when New England scored its gratuitous touchdown against the Cowboys last weekend with 19 seconds to go, and the intensity with which the Pats celebrated going up by 21 was a bit unnerving. Watching the highlights of Sunday's 49-28 thrashing of the Dolphins, complete with the hurry-up offense and fake spike in the final seconds of the first half (en route to taking a 42-7 lead into intermission) and the reinsertion of Tom Brady into a 42-21 game with 11 minutes remaining, I got a similar vibe. Maybe the Pats are trying to protect their BCS standing, or perhaps they've decided that winning big in October is the best preparation for a possible fourth Super Bowl championship. Or, more likely, they're mad at the world because their coach got caught videotaping the Jets' coaches sending in signals and some journalists and opponents had the gall to question whether such behavior had given the Pats a competitive advantage. "They're running it up," says Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Ty Law, a former Patriots All-Pro. "I know what's in their mind, that people are saying they cheated. Cause even I take offense to it, having been part of the three Super Bowl champions. (Bill) Belichick and the rest of the boys are trying to send a message: 'We'll beat y'all anyway."
•Adrian Peterson: 12 carries, 63 yards. Nice job, Brad Childress. Hey, why give the ball to one of the NFL's best offensive players when you can have Tarvaris Jackson (6-of-19, 72 yards) handling the pill?
• The Broncos in all blue, in a word: Yecccch. Again, I implore you: Bring back the Orange Crush. (That said, that 31-28 on the Invesco Field at Mile High scoreboard sure looked nice.)
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The frenzy for Hannah Montana tickets. It's a good TV show, and I hate seeing my daughter disappointed. But Hannah's a fictional character (unlike, say, Joe Montana, who was worth every penny), and high heels kind of hurt. Or so I'm told.
2. You're the Arizona Cardinals, you need two points to tie the game with 20 seconds remaining, and you snap the ball directly to … wide receiver Anquan Boldin? I'm usually 100 percent on board with Ken Whisenhunt's play calls, and I admire his guts, and I realize Kurt Warner's left elbow injury made things dicey near the goal line. But I'm pretty sure Whiz would like to have that decision back.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Nothing drives me crazier during an NFL game than hearing an official, after conferring with his peers before making a close call, qualify the decision by first saying into his microphone, "The ruling on the field is …" First of all, it's redundant; secondly, it's essentially baiting the coach of the team for whom the call was unfavorable into using a replay challenge. Most of all, it is the height of wimpiness. It's saying, "Well, I'm not really sure about this, so I'll cover my butt and make the safest call, and if you want to challenge it, that's fine, because even if it's ultimately overruled I won't get chastised by my bosses." Be a man, make the call – fumble, incomplete, down by contact, whatever – and let the coaches and/or replay official handle their own business.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Why is it that one half of the country hates you for being a Pats fan and the other half hates you for being a Bolts fan, when you clearly write every Wednesday that you don't get overly emotional about any NFL team? How has our educational system produced so many Einsteins? I am sure after this week, they will have you bare foot and pregnant with Adrian Peterson's baby. Keep up the great work, it makes hump day that much better. Go Bears!"
I don't even want to talk about the last two words of your email, but I appreciate the rest of it. As for the imaginary lump in my tummy, and your musing about our educational system, let's just say that would add new meaning to the term "No Child Left Behind."
"Mr. Silver, as a fan of your column and as a proud gay man who loves the NFL, your comment about the 49ers being treated like Vito in Jersey was a horribly lame attempt at humor. Gay people are brutalized and murdered every day all over the world, and the way Vito went out on the show particularly stings for anyone who has been bashed or known anyone who has, simply for existing. There were all sorts of mobsters on the show you could have named. Instead you took the low road and essentially called the 49ers the 'gay' team. There's a reason why guys like Esera Tuaolo and Dave Kopay have to come out after they leave the league, and your question accentuated that point. Hope it felt good. It was a cheap shot at someone without a helmet."
Whoops, that was not my intent at all, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. As many of you may have noticed, I have this hard-to-control habit of bringing Sopranos characters into my copy. In this instance, I was merely attempting to merge a Jersey-centric reference with my suspicion that the 49ers would get manhandled by the Giants, and I settled on a memorably chilling Sopranos murder without considering the larger context. Given the current political climate and American sporting culture in general, I can see how you and others would be sensitive to such portrayals, and I'm sorry for inadvertently adding to the negativity.
"Do you honestly believe that the Chargers snagging (Chris) Chambers makes them better then the Patriots? I think you need to take a whiff … the Patriots are the Poo my friend! The Patriots won't lose to the Colts at home … and I know the game is at Indy … but the playoff game will be in good ol' New England! The Patriots may lose a game … if the Patriots have a bad day … a real bad day … like the starters miss the flight. Anyone who says (Tom) Brady isn't the best in the game currently is just an idiot … don't hate the player, hate the game! Keep up the good work Silver … when the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl undefeated … can you get me a ticket?"
Fort Wayne, Ind.
After reading last Friday's 'Trippin',' do you actually believe that I was the one saying San Diego trading for Chambers makes them better than the Pats, rather than some surly Chargers fan? And I don't know where you've been, but I'm the one who gets accused of giving too much love to Brady. One other thing that confuses me: If the Patriots are, as you suggest, "the Poo," wouldn't that make them No. 2 to Indy's No. 1?
"Wait, did you win the Douche Bag of the year awards or was that won by Bill Simmons. (Expletive) New England."
No, actually, that was Mike Lupica. But I digress.
"I've never really sent a sports writer an email to comment on something that they've said. Positive or Negative. I've got to say though, that in my very narrow market for media outlets there are only three sports writers that I actually enjoy all of what they have to say. One is Steve Sipple, who covers our loved but horribly under-achieving Cornhuskers. The second is Bill Simmons, who is thoroughly entertaining, and the third which I just really started reading is you. Keep up the fantastic work of pushing people's buttons and enticing such out of the blue anger from sports fans. They can all say what they want, but they wouldn't be posting emails if you weren't doing something right. Thanks for the entertainment."
Thanks, and just for the record, Steve Sipple didn't win the D.B.O.T.Y., either.
"Not really a question, but a mere observation: I used to think you had a thing against the Chargers, but as the season played (is playing out) I realize more and more the thinking behind what some people would call unfair critique of the team. I don't know why when a team finally breaks even at .500 fans all want the Chargers to be back in your top 10. They are in the AFC Worst division, they have a buttload of talent, and they have only momentum going into the bye week to show for it. People who call the CC trade our version of the NE (Randy) Moss trade need to have his/her eyes or IQ or both checked. Eric Parker was injured and had a setback. Chris Chambers is at best a side grade and in many cases cannot replace the sure third-down conversion hands of Eric. If this team rides into the playoffs and makes it to the AFC championship game, myself as a Chargers fan will be happy. I guess I wish sometimes people would realize that so-called 'power rankings' are not based off of strictly wins, or who you beat, but also takes into account the struggles a team has, the personnel, and the expectations of the team. The Chargers so far have underperformed, and I concur with your mediocre ranking of them. Hopefully you can post this up after seeing a bunch of posted Chargers whiner fans to try and recoup some dignity for the Bolts."
Can I hire you to handle my replies to emails from Chargers fans?
"Most accurate thing to ever appear in a Michael Silver column: 'The reason you still read 32 Questions is because it is the best thing on the Internet on Wednesdays.' Truth. Yahoo! Sports get your act together."
I don't know what that means, but for the record, Y! Sports has its act together like the cast of "Hairspray," only with more flamboyant 'dos.
"No question, just a statement. … You rip on people and you just don't stop … You are so pissy. … You sound like a 13-year-old kid. Example: someone said stuff about your mom. Your Response: Did that take all dinner to think of that? You are the most immature writer for Yahoo! without a doubt. How old are you, 13,14,15? So Stillers!!"
I'm old enough to recognize that the person who "said stuff" about my mom – that she was smarter than me and my dad, based on his observations after a dinner with my parents in L.A. – was, in fact, Barry Switzer, who coached Oklahoma to three national championships and the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl crown before he became a professional 'Trippin'' contributor. As for your question, in a couple of years, I'll have a 13-year-old kid. And I'll be sure to take it out on emailers like you.
"You are a massive tool."
Yes, I am a big old hammer. You are the nail.
"Dude, I just started reading your column this year. I dig the energy, the irreverence and all the fun you are having with it. I especially enjoy it when you give the smack down to the spelling-and grammar-challenged among us. So you even got me to become a Golden Bears fan and now look at what's happened! Are these guys the Buffalo Bills of the NCAA? A Bills fan in Guatemala"
No, the Bears are even more pitiable.
"Dear Michael, you are biased in your column as obviously evidenced by your placement of *insert team that i coincidentally just so happen to be a superfan of here*'s ranking within this stratosphere. Again, I reiterate: you are the biased one and I hate you on a personal level as a result. Cheers, Brandon p.s. I'm not being 'ironical' in the slightest. Never."
College Park, Md.
This just went to the top of my email power rankings.
"It's actually quite interesting the fact that you mortify almost all of the recipients in your column, but I'm quite hesitant to ask if you know how atrocious your 'visage' really is? But enough about that dilemma, I am wondering if you're 'intellectually deprived.' The Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants, and the Jacksonville Jaguars all over the Green Bay Packers? Am I missing something here are you just too inept to see your inaccuracy? Please Explain."
Gladly. As soon as you can kindly explain what the hell you're talking about.
"Let's see how many adjectives you can fit into your sorry arguments. What the hell do you know about sports? You suck, your page sucks and you should go back to Pakistan and eat grasshoppers with your cousins."
Here's an adjective just for you: Disturbed.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"im going to kill myself"
– Text from former Cal swimmer and current UCLA law student Gina Marek, at 4:24 p.m. Saturday, pretty much summing up the mood of Golden Bears everywhere.