Way back in August, during the dog days of training camp in St. Joseph, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware essentially took turns trying to make the most of second- and third-team reps.
With star Jamaal Charles blocking West on the running back depth chart, and rock-solid fullback Anthony Sherman blocking Ware on the fullback depth chart, it would have been hard at the time — silly, even — to suggest that a mere five months later, the pair would be carrying the rushing load for the hottest team in football.
But here they are, both 24, doing just that in a whirlwind of a season for the 11-5 Chiefs, who won their first playoff game in 22 years with a 30-0 drubbing of the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round on Saturday — not that there’s been much time for reflection.
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“We haven’t really had time yet — we’re winning,” West said with laugh. “(At the end), we’re going to sit down and say ‘Man, we were successful this year.’ ”
Since Charles’ season-ending injury on October 11, the Chiefs’ have actually averaged more rushing yards per game — 135.9, fifth in the league — in 11 regular-season games with West and Ware handling the load than they did in the previous 37 under coach Andy Reid (122.2).
The running ability of quarterback Alex Smith has something to do with that. He is among the league’s best when it comes to tucking the ball and running, and his 498 rushing yards in the regular season ranked fourth among all quarterbacks.
But the dynamic duo of West, who has rushed for a team-high 634 yards and four touchdowns in 160 carries, and Ware, who has 403 yards and six touchdowns in a mere 72 carries, also done its part — and there are a few reasons for that.
First, give both players credit, they bring noticeable physical strengths to the table, whether it be quickness (West) or power (Ware). But running backs coach Eric Bieniemy and the men calling the plays, Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, also deserve credit for helping both come along so quickly.
“I think it would have been easy, with Jamaal out, to be like ‘The run game, oh no,’ ” Smith said. “But I think for sure, we’ve been able to … with these two, (say) we’re gonna run the ball, we’re gonna play-action pass, (use a) possession passing game on first or second down, take our shots.
“And I do think, all around the field, it’s made us hard to defend, because you’ve got to pick your poison, right? When you’re running the ball, you get good looks outside.”
Bieniemy certainly does his part to make sure the running game has been purring. The mere mention of his booming voice, which can be heard at every practice as he shouts out personnel groups and instructions to the running backs, prompts amused chuckles from players.
“You can’t help but not hear E.B. — it’s just the way he coaches, it’s hard,” Smith said with a laugh.
West praised Bieniemy for his passion, and noted that he’s done a great job teaching all three of the Chiefs’ young backs, which includes Knile Davis, during the peaks and valleys they’ve traveled since Charles’ injury.
“You’ve got to think about it — all of us are young, really,” West said. “All three of us are 24 years old. And to have the success we have been, man, it’s because of him.
“I’m not going to say he puts fear in you, but you know that if you’re doing wrong, you’ve got to go over there and argue with him, so you want to make sure you do it right.”
Especially when it comes to pass protection, a crucial element to any offense that young backs often struggle with. Ware not only played college football in a major conference (Southeastern) at Louisiana State, he also played some fullback in the NFL with the Chiefs and is a former high school quarterback, so blitz pickup has always come easier for him.
But for West, an undrafted free agent from Abilene Christian, understanding the finer points of blitz pickup was a significant area of focus as a rookie in 2014.
“I think coach Bieniemy does a great job of coaching those running backs and, particularly in (Charcandrick’s) case, not only understanding the run game, but understanding protection,” Pederson said. “As a young player in our system, we ask our quarterback and then our backs to do a lot of pass protection.”
West said he often hears Bieniemy’s voice when he’s on the field, and he’s always thinking of Bieniemy’s pet phrases like “get upfield,” “finish” and “get set.”
“Oh yeah, you can hear him on the sideline during the game,” West said. “He teaches us everything we know, and he makes sure we know it before we go out there and play. It gives us confidence.”
But all the confidence in the world wouldn’t help West and Ware if they didn’t already have the physical goods to play in this league.
“This is the thing — everybody in this league can play,” receiver Jason Avant said. “The majority of the time, it’s about opportunity. Guys in this league can play, you just may not know about them. That’s why, when a guy has a big contract, teams are willing to let guys go, because they know that guys can play. So just because we haven’t heard of them or know anything about them doesn’t mean that they can’t.”
While the 5-foot-10, 205-pound West — who ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2014 — is more likely to win a footrace to the end zone, the 5-foot-10, 228-pound Ware is more likely to lower the boom and run over you, just like he did to Texans safety Quintin Demps on a 23-yard run in the win over the Texans.
“He’s got great balance — his center of gravity is so low and he’s a powerful guy, powerful in the lower extremities there in his legs,” Pederson said. “His balance is unbelievable and he’s got great vision. (He’s) a patient runner, I would throw that in there as well.”
Yet, it’s not quite as easy as calling them a thunder and lightning duo, as they share critical traits. Both are decisive, downhill runners, which has allowed Reid and Pederson to craft an offense around more inside power runs like isolation and inside zone, featuring plenty of pulling linemen and double-teaming at the point of attack.
When Charles was healthy, they called more outside zone runs and other plays that allowed him to win on the edge. But the staff’s ability to adjust doesn’t surprise Avant, who has spent most of his 10-year NFL career under Reid and Pederson.
“Coach Reid and Doug see a guy’s ability and put them in the best situation to succeed, and that’s the positive about having those types of coaches,” Avant said. “Because a lot of times, if you don’t have a good coach like that, he maybe wants you to be Jamaal Charles rather than Charcandrick West.”
Same goes for West, who feels grateful for being dropped into a situation like this one, as he and Ware are carrying the rushing load for the hottest team in football — one that could advance to the AFC Championship Game with a road win over the New England Patriots at 3:35 p.m. Saturday.
He certainly knows they’ve both come a long way since those hot August days, when they were simply doing anything they could to simply make the team and hope they’d one day get a chance to prove they belong.
“I feel like yeah, we’ve proven we could play in this league,” West said.