In the days following Jamaal Charles’ season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury in mid-October, the Chiefs brought in a handful of running backs on a tryout basis.
But even at the time, Chiefs coach Andy Reid made it clear that the Chiefs would look in-house before signing anybody. He went out of his way to mention Spencer Ware — a second-year pro who was grinding away on the practice squad at the time — as a worthy option.
Six weeks later — in the Chiefs’ convincing 33-3 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday — Ware proved his coach right.
After starting running back Charcandrick West was lost with a hamstring injury in the third quarter, Ware, 24, entered the game and promptly began hammering away at the Chargers, rushing 17 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns to close out the Chargers, 2-8.
“I would tell you he’s core-strong. He’s a big guy. He has some bulk there (where) you have to try to muster up to tackle, And then he’s got good feet and vision,” said Reid, whose team improved to 5-5 with their fourth straight win.
After the game, Ware was chill, as usual. But while he spoke calmly, it was clear how grateful and happy he was about finally making good on his long-awaited opportunity to help the team.
“I think I can help out this team a whole lot. That is one of the reasons why I think they (ran) me in (there),” Ware said. “(I want) to show my gratitude to them (with) my play on the field, and for them to pick me up when no one wanted me, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.”
But Ware, who was signed to a reserve-futures deal in December, brings more to the table than just his physical running style. His size (5 feet 10, 225 pounds) and football instincts have also made him a solid pass protector, which allowed the Chiefs to cross-train him at fullback this offseason.
“He’s smart. Remember, he went to LSU as a quarterback,” Reid said. “He’s got the aptitude part of this thing. He can handle this thing. That’s why we were able to play him as tailback and fullback. He understands the pass game, he’s got good hands, (and he’s) a good athlete. Not the fastest guy in the world, but (he’s) definitely a powerful, powerful guy, and he’s a big, physical guy, and he’s dirty tough. He’s a tough, tough guy.”
Ware was cut at the 53-man roster deadline shortly before the season started, but with only one fullback on the roster (Anthony Sherman), his versatility was attractive enough to prompt the Chiefs to immediately sign him to the practice squad.
At that point, Ware knew he could play running back in this league, but he was grateful thtat his pass blocking — which he really committed to doing well before his junior year at LSU in 2011 — helped him stick around long enough to prove himself.
“I’ve always taken pride in it, because I wanted to be an every-down back,” Ware said of his pass blocking. “But it really happened my junior year. … I really wasn’t seeing as many carries as I normally did because of some incidents in college, but I figured out a way that I can help the team with an unselfish mindset, because I’m a team player.
“So if they wanted me to pass protect and wanted me in on third downs or key situations in the game, I wanted them to call on me. So I worked at it, and I took pride in it, and I did my best.”
Ware was the starting running back at LSU in 2011 until he failed a drug test. He was suspended for one game and was essentially a rotational player at the position for the rest of his career.
Ware declared for the draft after his junior season, and was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He appeared in two games that season, rushing three times for 10 yards while also cross-training some at fullback.
It did not take him long to see his pass-protecting skills could carry over to the NFL, either. During the 2013 preseason, he remembers leveling a free rusher from the San Diego Chargers so badly the defensive lineman buckled.
“I don’t know why, but our center just let the nose guard come through, and I actually gave him the business — square in the chest,” Ware said of the defensive lineman. “He buckled for a 320-pounder. I said: ‘Shoot, they’re all the same. Hit ’em in the right place, they’ll feel it.’ ”
Ware remembers his coaches praising him for the block, and it was a display of versatility that typically keeps a young draftee around a while. But the Seahawks still released Ware in September 2014, eight months after a DUI arrest that was eventually dismissed for a lack of reasonable suspicion.
Shortly after his release, Ware was arrested again for suspicion of DUI, a charge to which he pleaded guilty a month later. He spent the next few months waiting for his next opportunity when the Chiefs signed him to a reserve-futures contract in late December.
“I saw the opportunity here,” Ware said. “I like their offense, I like how they utilize their running backs, and I felt like I can be a factor in the scheme and bring something different.”
Since then he has contributed heavily on special teams — he’s been on the kickoff, kick return and punt return units since Charles’ injury — and forged friendships with the other young backs on the roster, including West and Knile Davis, as they band together to pick up the slack left by Charles’ injury.
“It’s definitely a supportive (running back) room, because we’re all still young, so that’s what we all have in common,” Ware said. “We can relate in a lot of different ways and talk about a lot of different things to help us get better.”
After his performance on Sunday, Ware could be in line for more carries going forward. Hamstring injuries like West’s can linger — Reid said recently he is day-to-day — and Ware’s hard-charging performance as a runner Sunday, which complemented his usual steady blocking, won’t be forgotten.
But no matter what the coaches decide to do going forward, nothing will take away Ware’s satisfaction after the game. He’s sacrificed a lot to stick around, and on Sunday that sacrifice paid off with an opportunity, one he was pleased to take full advantage of.
“I mean, I’m real grateful,” Ware said. “Words can’t even really explain it. Coming from where I started to where I’m at now, it’s just a blessing, really.”
Bills at Chiefs
Time: Noon Sunday
TV: CBS (Channels 5 and 13)