The events of Sunday do not signal an obvious changing of the guard in the Chiefs’ backfield the way a breakout stretch did nearly seven years ago, but similarities exist.
Spencer Ware’s tour de force effort in doing a large part to elevate the Chiefs past the Chargers in the franchise’s premier comeback does not immediately vault him into the starter’s role the way Jamaal Charles claimed the job midway through the 2009 season.
Whereas Larry Johnson’s already-cratering career came to a halt during a dreadful ’09 season, Charles’ 2016 campaign will begin soon to prevent a full-on baton pass in Kansas City. But the first Week 1 outing of Ware’s career does appear to have brought to an end Charles’ stranglehold on the position group he’d demonstratively presided over for years.
Sunday’s 199 yards from scrimmage, delivered in incredibly versatile fashion for a runner who previously profiled as a between-the-tackles cog, points to Ware carving out a significant role even after Charles returns. This will benefit Charles and the Chiefs in 2016, a season that will still need contributions from the best running back in franchise history.
It will keep Charles fresh for more important games and help the NFL’s yards-per-carry kingpin gradually return from his second torn ACL this decade. However, Ware showing what he did and vexing the Bolts does point to a long-term issue.
When Charles commandeered the position that belonged to Johnson since 2005 — when he inherited it from a breaking-down Priest Holmes — the Chiefs were one of the worst teams in football and came to the belated realization they’d handed money to the wrong player. Johnson proved to be an on- and off-the-field disaster after signing a five-year, $43.2 million extension in 2007.
Charles’ presence made the combustive Johnson expendable.
The current edition of Charles will return soon, but Ware has done enough to siphon carries from a player who probably did not receive enough in his prime. Kansas City will want Charles as close to optimal condition as possible before deploying him, and Ware showed there isn’t a need to rush the usual starter back despite the stakes of this season. The fourth-year back proved to be quite capable, acting as a between-the-hashes runner and a task for linebackers and defensive backs to bring down at the second level while showing receiving savvy he hadn’t before presented.
The complete effort, which was kind of out of the Holmes library, coupled with the runners’ disparate health status should make Ware a key component of the Chiefs’ offense throughout the season. It’s now possible Charles returns as an overqualified — but potentially lethal — complementary back who’s fresher for passing-down work. He’s always had the frame for this role but, rightfully so, hasn’t functioned in a part-time capacity in years.
Kansas City inexplicably allowed Thomas Jones to lead the team in carries in 2010, marking the last season Charles truly shared this job. In the years since, the two-time All-Pro displayed Hall of Fame ability. But those ACL tears interrupted his timeline, one that may now be irrevocably altered thanks to the Chiefs’ savvy acquisitions.
Thanks to shrewdly adding Ware and Charcandrick West and then subsequently signing both to the same contract, the Chiefs will soon be confronted with the issue they surely knew they’d face.
Since the three-year, $4.2 million extension the 25-year-old Ware signed in April could look ridiculous in a matter of weeks, the Chiefs have their running back position addressed for years at next to nothing. Outings like Sundays do not point to the franchise keeping a 30-year-old Charles on the payroll next season regardless of how he looks when he re-emerges from what’s been a lengthy rehab process.
Complementary backs do not receive $7M salaries (Charles’ cap number in 2017) especially those with the former third-rounder’s medical history. Even if Charles re-asserts command later this season, his $7M ’17 figure is not guaranteed. On a team flush with guaranteed commitments, and one that doesn’t have Eric Berry or Dontari Poe on its next cap sheet, the potential to save that money could certainly supersede the desire to let the longest-tenured starting running back in team history play out his contract.
It’s interesting Charles did not receive the same kind of commitment in overall dollars Johnson did despite soon becoming a better player. However, Charles saw all of the five-year, $32.5M deal he signed in 2010 — and induced the Chiefs to add funds to it in ’14. But the initial contract shows a franchise possibly spooked by what happened with Johnson may not have viewed Charles as the no-doubt No. 1 back he’d become.
Now, the Chiefs doing a better job of identifying future talent could put him out of a job.
Neither Ware nor West replicated Charles’ brilliance in 2015, making the ninth-year runner restoring the status quo seemingly imminent. What transpired Sunday appears to move the Chiefs’ top two running backs’ value closer together since it seems unlikely Charles will be quite as good as he was before his second major injury.
This becomes a good problem for the Chiefs, though.
Ware is either elite insurance against Charles being well off his former path or a starter-in-waiting if the western-Missouri icon defies the odds and rediscovers his virtuoso version. Glancing at this just through the prism of 2016 production, the Chiefs are in a better position than they were before the season to unleash a top-tier running game, even if it’s going to mean a difficult forthcoming decision.
Because the team’s window is now. Unlike their previous changing of the guard at running back, the Chiefs are in position to use their previous backup’s abilities in tandem with the starter.
That kind of flexibility will be difficult to contain.