Chiefs’ running back version of thunder, lightning set to roll

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Life without running back Jamaal Charles hasn’t been too rough on the Chiefs since Charles suffered a season-ending ACL tear against the Chicago Bears in Week 5.

Dec. 6, 2015; Oakland; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) hands off to running back Spencer Ware (32) against the Raiders at Coliseum. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Dec. 6, 2015; Oakland; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) hands off to running back Spencer Ware (32) against the Raiders at Coliseum. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Chiefs’ ground attack entered Week 5 ranked 15th in the league, averaging 108 yards per game. But the team now churns out 121.3 yards a game to rank seventh entering Sunday’s matchup against the San Diego Chargers.

Making the improvements even more impressive are the six teams (Seattle, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Buffalo, Minnesota, Pittsburgh) currently ranked in front of the Chiefs rely heavily on a sole featured running back.

Kansas City improved by combining a pair of second-year pros, the speedy Charcandrick West and a powerful Spencer Ware, in the past seven games.

“We’re lightning and thunder,” West said. “It’s a good thing to have, two backs that can do everything, just complement each other. You never know what you’re going to get from either one of us.”

The 5-10, 205-pound West fills the role of lightning with explosive ability in the open field, while the 5-10, 229-pound Ware offers the thunder with punishing runs between the tackles.

“That’s my style of running,” Ware said. “People can label it as many ways as you can. I just label myself as a running back that gets tough yards.”

Having two productive and healthy running backs provides the Chiefs a luxury to utilize a thunder and lightning combination the rest of the way.

“I think every game is going to be different, that’s just my experience with it,” coach Andy Reid said. “I started off doing this with three guys. You don’t want to tie it down to one, you want them both ready to go, and then go with it. Whatever the game presents, you kind of go with. I’d hate to tie that thing down like that.”

A backfield committee isn’t unchartered territory in Kansas City.

The early 1990s under then-coach Marty Schottenheimer saw the Chiefs utilize running backs Barry Word and Christian Okoye, and then Schottenheimer incorporated the likes of Donnell Bennett, Greg Hill and Bam Morris in the late 1990s.

Utilizing a committee also isn’t new to Reid, who has history with the approach going back to his days as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 2003, Reid used Correll Buckhalter (126 carries), Brian Westbrook (117 carries) and Duce Staley (96 carries) on a team that finished 12-4 and ninth in the league in rushing. The trio combined for 1,618 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns.

“You play off of everybody’s strengths, and that’s kind of what you do,” Reid said. “You want to give the guys an opportunity to exploit their strengths out there as players, and then work on their weaknesses to make them into strengths as they go with age and experience.”

Reid’s success with running backs has the admiration of Chargers coach Mike McCoy.

“I think the great thing that Andy does is there’s a system in place and they do what they do,” McCoy said in a conference call with Chiefs beat writers. “That’s how he’s always been. The backs in his system have always been successful.”

The Chiefs unleashed the committee of West, who returned from a hamstring injury, and Ware as a one-two punch in Week 13’s 34-20 win over the Oakland Raiders.

The pair initially rotated series against the Raiders, but West ended up playing on 34 of 51 (67 percent) offensive, totaling nine carries for 35 yards, adding two catches for 9 yards on three targets. Ware played 17 snaps (33 percent) and rushed for 26 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, adding two catches for -1 yard on two targets.

“I thought it worked out pretty good,” Reid said. “As they got into the flow of it, I thought they did a good job. Both of them have their strengths and I thought both of them played pretty good.”

West echoed the Chiefs head coach.

“It was good for us both to go out there and play,” West said. “It’s the end of the season, everybody is not going to be feeling it, so you need all the contributions you can get from everybody.”

Dec. 6, 2015; Oakland; Kansas City Chiefs running back Charcandrick West (35) during the second half against the Raiders at Coliseum. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Dec. 6, 2015; Oakland; Kansas City Chiefs running back Charcandrick West (35) during the second half against the Raiders at Coliseum. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

On their own, the duo has proven to be highly capable as a featured rusher.

West burst on the scene as the lead back in Weeks 7-10, where he totaled 66 carries for 276 yards and three touchdowns, adding nine catches for 136 yards and a touchdown on 16 targets during that span. He gained 16 yards rushing on 11 carries and 48 yards receiving on two catches in Week 11 before leaving with a hamstring injury.

The running game didn’t skip a beat when West went down, as Ware stepped in and finished the game with 96 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, adding a catch for 5 yards.

And with West out in Week 12, Ware produced 114 yards rushing and a touchdown on 19 carries, adding three catches for 1 yard.

The effectiveness of the running game since Jamaal Charles went down five games into the regular season left an impression on right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

“It’s crazy they were able to step up like this and do a tremendous job getting like over 100 yards,” Duvernay-Tardif said of West and Ware. “That’s a really big plus for our offense, for sure.”

Offensive lineman Zach Fulton, who started at center in Week 13, said the transition between the two running backs was seamless during the game against the Raiders and the offensive line enjoys blocking for the duo.

“Most of the time, I didn’t realize who was in,” Fulton said, “but it’s definitely fun blocking for both of them. Spencer is more power-type running style, he’s always fun to watch and so is Charcandrick; he’s a quick, lightning-type guy.”

While most running backs in the NFL would prefer to get into a rhythm during a game, the need for a set amount of touches won’t be an issue with West and Ware.

Neither player is concerned with individual statistics.

“Our whole locker room is filled with great guys who are not selfish,” Ware said. “There are people in here that will give up plays for someone else to make a play and that’s how good teams come together and win, especially on a six-game winning streak like we’ve been doing.”

West agreed emphatically with his backfield teammate.

“It’s all about the team,” West said. “It’s just I feel like if you listen to these coaches and just go out and do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be successful.”

Both running backs offer different skillsets to the Chiefs offense, but also have distinct personalities.

Ware has a quiet demeanor and isn’t as demonstrative after scoring a touchdown when compared to the energetic West, whose tribute to SpongeBob SquarePants with a “bring it around town” celebration in Week 8 blew up social media.

Don’t expect Ware to follow suit with his own trademark celebration.

“I don’t dance,” Ware said with a chuckle. “You’ll probably catch me at home, but at work I don’t dance. I’ll leave the dancing to the dancers.”

Dancing or not, the Chiefs are on track to use the best of both worlds in the backfield on the push to the postseason.

And the Chiefs head coach is happy to have them along for the ride.

“We really like both guys and we’re very fortunate to have both of them here,” Reid said. “And then you add Knile (Davis) into the mix, you have three guys that you know can play the game. That’s not a bad deal. It’s a tribute to (general manager John) Dorsey and his crew.”


Herbie Teope is the lead Chiefs beat writer for and The Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.