Winning is the milestone that matters most to Chiefs running back Spencer Ware

Chiefs running back Spencer Ware has given the backfield a jolt since his return from a one-game absence due to a concussion.
Chiefs running back Spencer Ware has given the backfield a jolt since his return from a one-game absence due to a concussion.

The evolution of Spencer as the Chiefs’ top running back was not one that followed a typical progression of a player going from high school star to college star to impact player in the NFL.

Consider a couple of statistical notes.

Although Ware has played running back in the NFL and college, he hasn’t led a team in rushing yards. He does now, with 572 heading into Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Arrowhead Stadium.

Ware is also on pace to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season for the first time in his life. The closest he has come is 982 yards gained during his junior year as a dual-threat quarterback at Princeton High in Cincinnati.

This comes as news to Chiefs co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.

“Really?” Nagy said. “What I know is he comes to work every day, he never complains or bickers. He never asks for the football. He just shows up and asks what he can do.”

Ware is mindful of such milestones ... but he’s focused on team goals.

“I wouldn’t know how that would feel, so that would definitely be a milestone for me as a runner,” Ware said of the 1,000 yards. “Shoot, it would mean a lot. But I care more about winning. I just want my team to play good and win.”

That makes this potentially the best of all possible seasons for Ware. He has become the Chiefs’ primary ball carrier, and in some games their top receiver. And that’s for a team that leads the AFC West with a 7-2 record.

In the Chiefs’ season opener against the Chargers, Ware had 129 receiving yards. He rushed for a career-best 131 in their victory at Oakland.

In last weekend’s victory at Carolina, the Chiefs offense couldn’t get into the end zone against the Panthers’ stout defense. But Ware rushed for 61 yards on 13 attempts, with no gain bigger than his 11-yarder up the middle after a crucial takeaway by teammate Marcus Peters in the final minute. Ware’s rumble reduced the yardage and risk of Cairo Santos’ game-winning 37-yard field goal.

Toughness is Ware’s calling card. He’s listed at 5 feet 11, 229 pounds and his NFL Scouting Combine report called him “a no-nonsense runner that openly looks for contact.”

That same report said he “lacks the speed to be a game changing runner, or an every down back.” But what it didn’t measure was Ware’s football IQ, which coaches have raved about since high school.

Bill Leach, Ware’s head coach at Princeton High, remembers a conversation as they returned from the U.S. Army All-America Game, where Ware rushed for 65 yards on eight attempts. Leach was curious about what Ware saw on a play that appeared to be going nowhere but that Ware turned into a 6-yard gain.

“He starts describing the run and how after he got the ball the game slowed down,” Leach said. “He saw one lineman take this guy, another take that guy, saw where he had to cut and make his next move.

“Some guys put their heads down and go toward the end zone. Spencer figured out how things worked.”

The same quality helped Ware gain 1,249 rushing yards over three seasons at LSU. Frank Wilson was the Tigers’ running backs coach then, with a bevy of talent at his disposal.

Ware stood out for two reasons.

“His smartness and toughness,” said Wilson, now the Texas-San Antonio head coach. “Spencer would go into a game and recognize the defensive front, the coverage, help make sure we were in the right protection.”

Ware said he has always been a student of the game, dating to his pre-high school days.

“I started paying attention in little league,” Ware said. “I really wanted to be a quarterback. Even at that age I started kind of studying myself and thinking of ways I could get better.”

Those attributes have helped Ware succeed when he’s been given the opportunity. At LSU from 2010-12, Ware arrived on campus with Alfred Blue (now with the Houston Texans) and joined Stevan Ridley (now with the Atlanta Falcons) and later became teammates with Jeremy Hill (now with the Cincinnati Bengals). The program earned the nickname “Running Back U.”

Ware played immediately at LSU but always shared time. His sophomore year was his most productive, as he rushed for 707 yards and eight touchdowns, making the coaches’ All-SEC second team in a season that ended with a loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

His college career concluded with 1,653 combined rushing and receiving yards and a haul of 12 touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass. No surprise there; Ware was a four-year starting quarterback at Princeton. In the second game of his high school career, he accounted for six touchdowns.

“He was as good a passer as anybody, and he wasn’t just a football player who could throw,” said Leach, his high school coach. “He could throw it a mile with a nice touch.

“That’s one of the things that made him special. He could throw a dig route, a post, a go, all the throws good quarterbacks make.”

Ware was an athlete for all seasons, too, hitting .400 as an outfielder/shortstop/pitcher who went on to play 21 games as an outfielder for LSU in 2011.

When it came time to pick a college, the recruiters knew their way to Leach’s office. Brian Kelly, then at Cincinnati, was among the first to show serious interest. Ohio State had a home-state advantage, and activity stopped at the school when then-Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel paid a visit.

But Ware’s mind drifted south.

“I wanted to go to a winning program,” Ware said. “And I felt like the SEC was the best conference, and I wanted to win national championships in football and baseball. What other school could offer that?”

Wilson, LSU’s running backs coach, finished the recruiting process for LSU. A scholarship offer was a no-brainer after Ware’s appearance at a summer camp.

“He was phenomenal in camp,” Wilson said. “Then we followed him during his senior year, and he continued to dominate.”

But would Ware’s game translate to the NFL?

When the Seahawks made Ware their sixth-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft, the choice was questioned. Seattle seemed set at the position, with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, and the Seahawks had selected Christine Michael from Texas A&M with their second-round pick.

In Seattle for training camp, Ware played some fullback along with tailback and was on the Seahawks’ kick-coverage teams. He made the team, but an ankle injury ended his season after two games as Seattle went on to a Super Bowl title.

Ware signed a free-agent deal with the Chiefs at the end of the 2014 season. Last year, he was promoted from the practice squad after Jamaal Charles tore his ACL in Week 5. Ware was third on the depth chart behind Charcandrick West and Knile Davis.

Ware played sparingly in his first four games, but in a 33-3 victory at San Diego he rushed for 96 yards on 11 carries. A week later, he went for 114 in a victory over the Bills. The Chiefs went 11-2, including their playoff victory at Houston, using West and Ware as their primary running backs.

After the season, both players signed contract extensions on the same day. Ware’s deal is worth $3.6 million for two years.

Even with that financial security, team accomplishments remain Ware’s objective.

“As far as my individual stats go … if we win, everybody’s going theirs, in some way, shape or form,” Ware said. “A lot of people have (good) statistics, but they haven’t won, haven’t won anything. I’ve never been one of those players.”

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff