The Chiefs in February cast away much-admired running back Jamaal Charles — foreshadowing an offseason of dramatic change that later included the surprising release of receiver Jeremy Maclin and stunning firing of general manager John Dorsey.
Mostly, they discarded Charles because of his apparently precarious knees. Charles, who had 7,260 career rushing yards and an NFL running back career record of 5.5 yards a carry, was limited by injuries to 83 carries the last two seasons.
At least some factor in not even trying to negotiate with Charles was this: They believed the combination of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West — and whoever else they could bring in to bolster the group — was sufficient to make Charles expendable.
The true virtue of the strategy can’t really be known for months to come, but it’s getting a test and more data this weekend.
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Even on a forgettable night fraught with dropped passes and 14 penalties for 126 yards and other mental lapses by the Chiefs, the most troubling snapshot was the sight of Ware clutching his right knee before being carted off the field.
The immediate update to his condition was a cryptic press box announcement that Ware had, in fact, hurt his right knee and would “not return.”
After the game, coach Andy Reid said that Ware had a sprained knee. X-rays were negative, he added, but a telltale MRI awaits on Saturday.
Whatever the case, the deflating episode served as a reminder of the volatility inherent to the position, the need for serious depth there and the fickle fortune that comes with it all.
So, abruptly and at least for the moment on Friday, third-round draft pick Kareem Hunt inherited the starting job.
Hunt, who rushed for 1,475 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at Toledo, was the only back besides Ware to have carries in the first half (9 carries for 39 yards) with the No. 1 offense.
“He learned how fast things can change, where all of a sudden you become that starter,” Reid said. “For a young guy, you always them, ‘Hey, you’re one play away from being in there as the guy.’
“He got that firsthand tonight.”
The Chiefs were excited enough about Hunt to trade up in the draft.
He’s only gained traction and credibility through camp by demonstrating awareness beyond his years, pass-catching ability and willingness as a blocker plus an understanding of the playbook and nuances of the position, poise and explosiveness.
“I’m still getting used to it,” Hunt said. “I’m getting more comfortable but still have some things to work on and keep learning each and every day.”
If Ware is indeed out for an extended period, this won’t so much force the Chiefs to play Hunt as simply accelerate the timetable for a player they’ve expected to contribute heavily this season.
Meanwhile, in a week’s time everything seems to have changed for West, who filled in admirably for Charles in 2015 but seemed on the verge of being odd-man out with the addition of Hunt and resurgent veteran signee C.J. Spiller.
A week after rushing for 113 yards on seven carries against Cincinnati’s deep reserves, West played most of the third quarter before Spiller entered the game … though neither distinguished themselves Friday. West ran 3 times for minus-1 yards and Spiller 3 times for 10 yards as the Chiefs were muzzled offensively in the second half.
In fact, they got about nowhere offensively most of the game, mustering only 102 yards with the first team in the first half and scoring their only touchdown on a 95-yard kickoff return by D’Anthony Thomas.
Preseason game or not, this was a discouraging reality check for a team with professed lofty aspirations even if Reid mostly shrugged it off as “a good teaching tape to learn from.”
They’ve got a lot to clean up from this messy night, mentally and physically.
Even so, for the time being nothing was more of a concern than the running game.
It’s entirely possible Ware could be fine, or at least back in time for the opener Sept. 7 at New England.
Or the job may now largely fall to a rookie the Chiefs believe in but nonetheless will face a learning curve.
Meanwhile, Charles will make a statement of some sort on Saturday night against Green Bay about how expendable he really was to the Chiefs as flux hovers over the position.