When four-time Pro Bowler and franchise running back Jamaal Charles laid helpless, crumpled, atop the Arrowhead Stadium turf during a Week 6 game in October against the Chicago Bears. The fate of Charles and the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2015 season was nearing its breaking point.
It was then, at that moment where the likelihood of Kansas City reaching the playoffs, vanished, all in one setting. By that point, the Chiefs were looking up at the AFC West standings, glaring at their abysmal 1-5 record through the first six weeks of play. Not only was Kansas City’s season spiraling but their most impact player, the one who has meant so much to the organization was out for the season with an ACL tear.
After the injury to one of the NFL’s most productive tail backs in the past five seasons. Many questions dispersed to where the Chiefs’ season would lead to, and from whom the production out of the backfield would come from.
The quest for a running back that would save the Chiefs’ season began on a Tuesday morning in early November, directly following the team’s first home victory of the year over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The metal-gated doors of the Chiefs’ practice facility swung open, and sprang out two unfamiliar faces. Two faces of players, who straight out of college received no offers from the NFL combine, much less a chance to appear onto an NFL roster. Yet, both came to the Chiefs in search of a promising future.
The first running back that Kansas City was left with was 24-year old Charcandrick West, an all-purpose back that was offered no Division I scholarships out of high school. Instead of taking the traditional route, West carved out his own path to the pros by way of Abilene Christian — a Division II school that’s located on the outskirts of western Texas. Despite West not getting drafted out of college, he was signed as a free agent by the Chiefs at the start of the 2014 season. While the Chiefs in years past have a reputation for churning out running backs. There was never an indication that West carried any value on the Chiefs, until they needed him when it mattered the most.
West’s rise to the NFL came as unexpected. West never played a snap during Kansas City’s 2014 season. Like professional products that emerge from outside premiere colleges, West had to prove himself any chance he could. Whether it was during practices or any additional hours on the practice squad, it was all geared towards one goal: to help the team grow anyway possible.
The Chiefs were essentially taking a leap of faith when they made the untested West the featured back to replace the injured Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs liked what they had seen from West in his season as an apprentice throughout 2014 in training camp, but until he had actually walked in Charles’ shoes for a while, they would be guessing, just like anyone else.
The guessing would soon be abolished when the Chiefs were 3-5, and faced a pivotal road game at Denver. Kansas City badly needed a win to keep their season alive and West, who was starting for the second week in a row, was searching for a moment that would stamp his name on the roster for the remainder of the season.
And with the Chiefs cradling a 22-0 lead with slightly over 11 minutes left in the game. West caught a pass on the far right of the field, made a sharp cut left and galloped his way for a game-sealing touchdown into the Denver night.
If the statement wasn’t already made after Week 10’s destruction of Denver, then West’s steady production afterwards would validate his role for the Chiefs. During the final eight weeks of the season, including playoffs, West accumulated 543 yards and 3 touchdowns from scrimmage. All together, West totaled 959 yards of offense in basically his first true season in the NFL.
Similar to West, LSU Tiger’s product Spencer Ware came to the Chiefs unheralded and unproven. Ware was selected 194th overall in the 6th round in the 2013 Draft to Seattle. Ware spent the majority of his rookie season as the Seahawks’ third string tailback, playing behind Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls. Nothing went easy for Ware in Seattle, as he fought through meager amounts of playing time and later a shoulder injury the following off-season which led to his discard.
When he first arrived to Kansas City as a late off-season pickup, the expectation for him was low. Before his breakout game at San Diego in December. Ware had never rushed for over 15 yards during an NFL game. Ware’s unpredicted rise to promise last year for Kansas City was no doubt a surprise, but he had the tools to be successful. At 5’10”, 227 pounds, Ware possessed outstanding vision and physicality in his runs. For the most part, Ware’s damage was mostly done in short yardage situations, where he utilized his burly frame and durability to his advantage. Ware capped off last season by totaling 403 yards, 6 touchdowns, on 72 carries.
From what was accomplished last season. The Chiefs’ disproved the theory that YOU CAN succeed even by losing your franchise player. Kansas City finished 2015 with a 12-6 record and snapped their 22-year playoff losing streak. But regardless of the Chiefs receiving vast production from unexpected sources to fill-in a gaping hole. There’s still quite a bit of uncertainty that relies in the Chiefs’ backfield.
As far as depth is concerned, no one in the NFL will be in better shape than Kansas City at the running back spot. Not only will West and Ware be locked up for the 2016 season, both earning $600,000 each. But by the time training camp rolls around in July, franchise RB Charles should be fully recovered from him ACL tear.
This essentially leaves Kansas City in a clustered three-man rotation at running back. There’s nothing wrong with what Kansas City is doing, however change should be expected somewhere. With Charles being fully healthy next season, the roles of West and Ware will be altered. That means, for now, West’s days of starting are over. But he can still provide steady production as Charles’ backup.
West averaged 4.0 YPC in 2015. While that’s not bad at all, it’s not near to the gaudy numbers Charles has put up for years (Charles has averaged at least 5.0 YPC every season in his career). Additionally, anyone watching could see the difference between the two. West is a decent running back who is going to have a long career in the league. But he simply can’t replace Charles’ explosiveness and ability to avoid defenders. Chiefs’ fans fell in love with Spencer Ware late in the season, and for good reason. In limited action, Ware had 5.6 YPC and displayed a high level of vision, power, and cutting ability. He didn’t seem overly dependent on blocking, but was rather able to create yards on his own. From that standpoint, it’s easy to understand why someone might think Ware has star potential.
Still, Ware only had 72 carries last season. That’s not very many and even then Ware got nicked up several times. So to say Ware isn’t ready for a full-time starting role is perfectly fine. It might’ve been just his first true season in the league, but until he shows the ability to carry the ball 200-250 times in the NFL without sustaining lingering injuries, then there’s an enormous question mark there with such a small sample size.
The Chiefs have plenty of cap space, more than enough to re-sign the guys they want and still make a few moves. For GM John Dorsey, it’s easy for him to realize just how flexible contracts can be. In the case of Charles, cutting him would save the Chiefs $5.3 million. That’s absolutely enough money to make a move. But again, the money to make a move already exits, and they would seemingly be cutting Charles to fix a problem that doesn’t need to occur.
With that being said, the Chiefs can survive by playing three running backs. Charles’ contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2017 season, meaning Charles still has at least two more years left of succeeding in his prime. Dorsey, and the entire Chiefs’ organization have stuck with Charles since they drafted him 73rd overall in the 3rd round of 2008 NFL Draft.
And much like Charles, the Chiefs should stick with the 24 year-olds West and Ware. Because, although they peaked in their rookie seasons, their time hasn’t come to be a full-time running back quite yet.