Kansas City, Mo. — Priest Holmes is questionable for Sunday's game at Houston because of bruised ribs, raising anew the question of whether Kansas City is asking too much of its Pro Bowl running back.
The NFL's offensive player of the year last season, Holmes missed the final two games because of a hip injury that required surgery in March and had him on crutches for several weeks.
Giving him only a handful of carries in five preseason games, the Chiefs planned for Holmes to have fewer touches than the 313 carries for 1,615 yards and 70 passes for another 672 he had a year ago in just 14 games.
Yet, in victories over San Diego and Pittsburgh already this season, Holmes has 53 touches, more than anyone else in the NFL except Miami's Ricky Williams -- a lot of punishment for a running back who will turn 30 in just a couple of weeks.
While nobody is saying Holmes' bruised ribs won't be healed by Sunday, head coach Dick Vermeil said Tuesday rookie Larry Johnson may be activated this week for the first time.
Coaches are sensitive to suggestions that they may be subjecting their prime weapon to more injury by overuse.
"Last year at this time, Priest had 44 carries for 206 yards and four touchdowns," offensive coordinator Al Saunders said.
"This year he's had 44 carries for 207 yards and five touchdowns. Last year after two games he had 11 catches for 50-some yards. This year he's had nine catches for 104-some yards. His workload is exactly the same after the first two games as it was last year."
Like most good backs, Holmes seems always to get better as the game wears on. His best run against Pittsburgh was a 31-yard scoring scamper in the fourth quarter that put the cap on a 41-20 victory.
"There were some situations (against Pittsburgh) where he took some hits off some guys not finishing up front," Saunders said. "You don't ever like him to take those solid hits. But you can't be so protective of him that he's not playing, and he gets out of the flow of the game. If he doesn't get that kind of flow in the game, he's not going to be as effective.
"He won't make the proper reads, he won't be able to hit the lanes like he normally does. At this point, he's getting about what a starting running back in the league should get."
Nevertheless, some critics are asking why a valuable man coming off hip surgery was still playing against the hard-tackling Steelers with a 34-20 lead with only about five minutes to go.
"As soon as you start taking people out of the game, you send a message to the rest of the team that you think it's over," said Vermeil.
"I've been in games, coached in games, when people have come back in six minutes and scored 14 or 17 points and beat you. You're just shocked. You just can't figure out what happened. Sometimes you can create that by sending a message late in the ballgame, and you can't get it back again."
One of the scariest moments for Chiefs fans last week came on Holmes' second TD, when he vaulted across the goal line and landed, with all his 213 pounds, squarely on that surgically repaired hip.
He got up and went to the sideline and was re-taped.
"I've got to learn how to land on my feet because I want to be there for the next play," he said with a grin. "Actually there was nothing wrong after I dove other than my back was hurting. And it didn't happen on that play.
"When it comes to playing football, you never know how hard you're getting hit until maybe four or five plays later."