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Eric Bieniemy on Chiefs running backs: “We feel six legs are better than two”

It’s been a crazy road from last spring — when we only thought we knew what the Chiefs running game would look like.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Chicago Bears David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This is what we said in these pages about Kansas City Chiefs running backs during organized team activities on May 30:

Now that the Chiefs have acquired running back Carlos Hyde in free agency, drafted Utah State running back Darwin Thompson, signed undrafted running backs James Williams and Marcus Marshall — and still have second-year running back Darrel Williams — some fans have been wondering if Damien Williams really has a lock on the starting job.

It might be too early to say — there’s a lot that can happen between now and the start of the season — but that didn’t stop Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy from making a simple, strong statement when asked by our own Pete Sweeney if the Chiefs would be going in the direction of a committee this season.

“Damien Williams is our starter, and we expect him to excel in that role,” he answered.

But by August — after Williams had missed time in training camp with injuries — Andy Reid was leaning towards a committee approach.

“I did a little bit of that when I was in Philadelphia, a kind of running back-by-committee deal, and we had some success with it,” the head coach said in an SiriusXM NFL Radio interview. “We’ll do that here.”

Then at the final cutdown before the regular season, the Chiefs suddenly had the opportunity to grab longtime Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy when he was released from the Buffalo Bills. Having just traded Hyde to the Houston Texans, there was space available in the running back room.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs picked him up.

“He still has the great feet and the vision,” Reid after the signing. “The way we’ll work that situation is that we are lucky to have Damien here who we consider a starter, as we do Shady. I think it is a great situation to be in, really for both of them and for the football team. They don’t know each other, but they’ll get to know each other here. I know they’ll work well together.”

Early in the season, McCoy got quite a few more snaps than we expected. Each week, the team seemed to be trying another combination of backs, attempting to find a one-two punch that included McCoy — that is, until McCoy made two crucial fumbles in losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers. Then it seemed like the Chiefs were trying to find a one-two punch that didn’t include McCoy.

Then both Williamses were injured. Darrel Williams went on injured reserve, while Damien missed several weeks. Then former Chief Spencer Ware returned to the fold, suddenly getting most of the snaps at running back. For a few games, it was like 2016 all over again. Ware was closing out games by gaining solid yardage between the tackles — and making a difference in pass protection.

Kansas City Chiefs v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As recently as Monday morning — with Damien Williams back from his rib injury — the position seemed more stable than it had since the start of the season; it looked like Williams and Ware would be able to carry the load into the postseason.

But on Wednesday, we learned that Ware had torn a rotator cuff during Sunday night’s victory over the Chicago Bears. Now on injured reserve, he has been lost for the season.

Some fans have been frustrated by the Chiefs being unable to find a running back who can just get a rhythm going as the starter — and right now, the team doesn’t seem any closer to doing that than they were in September.

“In the past, we’ve been blessed and fortunate to have a guy [who] can just assume the role,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy on Thursday. “Now we’re in a situation where we feel six legs are better than two.”

Bieniemy deferred specific questions about Ware to Andy Reid’s press appearance on Friday but was otherwise philosophical about the whole thing.

“As a coach in the league, you know that in some point in time, you’re going to be faced with some adversity,” he said. “You’re going to be faced with injuries. It’s unfortunate, but injuries happen at this level. All we want to do as coaches is be sure that the next guys are ready. You’ve heard me say this all season long, but I’ll continue saying this: we coach our starters to be starters. But we coach the guys behind them to take their jobs.”

One of the guys who is itching to take one of those jobs is Thompson, a rookie who has no shortage of ambition but hasn’t yet been able to display the kind of production we saw against lesser preseason competition — or be an effective pass blocker.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

”Darwin’s been doing a heckuva job,” said Bieniemy. “He’s actually improved. He’s just unfortunate that he’s in a loaded backfield. I don’t know that the loaded backfield has been healthy all at once, but he’s improved each and every week.

“You know, Darwin is one of those guys that the more he plays, the better he gets. And he’s had an opportunity to get some valuable reps. Now he just needs to continue to grow with the role he’s been placed into.”

Pressed on the issue of Thompson’s pass-blocking skills, Bieniemy expressed faith in Thompson.

”At the end of the day, it’s no problem with him stepping up and hitting somebody,” he assured reporters. “He’s probably one of the strongest players on our team. It’s just understanding the calls.

“We challenge our guys a lot,” he explained. “There’s a lot to think about. There’s a lot to know within that short period of time. And there’s a short period of time to react and do it the right way. But he’s improved throughout the course of the season — and I know that when he has an opportunity to show that he can do it, he’s going to do it the right way.”

But Bieniemy said that’s what they expect from all of the team’s running backs.

”Whatever running backs are available, we expect those guys to play big,” said Bieniemy. “That’s what we’re counting on. So there’s no one particular player that we’re saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be the guy.’ When his opportunity arises, we expecting him to provide the same productive numbers that we’ve seen from him.”

This whole process hasn’t inspired a lot of confidence in the Chiefs’ running game. And yet... the Chiefs have won their fourth-straight AFC West title.

If the team can succeed in the postseason, who are we to complain about how it was done?

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