The Cowboys' outside linebacker was getting close. He grabbed a quarterback here and there. He hit a quarterback here and there.
But along the way, a funny thing happened. Ellis got hurt and Spencer got better.
Over the past four weeks, Spencer has 3.5 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures and is becoming the player the Cowboys thought he could be when they made him a first-round pick out of Purdue in the 2007 draft.
"He's definitely stepped in and played well," inside linebacker Bradie James said. "He took some heat earlier but he kept getting to the quarterback but he wasn't sacking them. Now he is getting to the quarterback sacking and making some plays; hopefully that will free me up."
More importantly it could open things up for DeMarcus Ware, the other outside linebacker who gets double-teamed, chipped and schemed almost every defensive play.
If Spencer gets more pressure on the quarterback, it forces offenses to scheme both outside linebackers. The key to any 3-4 defense is the pressure from the outside linebackers.
In the Cowboys' scheme, Ware is the rusher and Spencer is the backer who plays the run and drops back in coverage. But when Spencer does rush, the expectations are the same as for Ware: Get the quarterback.
While Ware inspired the team by playing with a strained neck to record two sacks and two forced fumbles in a stunning victory over the undefeated Saints on Saturday night, Spencer might have been the best defensive player on the field.
Sure, Ware got the NFC's defensive player of the week award, but check out Spencer's line: Six tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss, three quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery.
The Cowboys contacted Elias Sports Bureau on Monday after reviewing the film and took a sack away from Spencer to give him 1.5. The Cowboys discovered defensive end Marcus Spears hit quarterback Drew Brees low when Spencer hit him high.
"He's played outstanding again," coach Wade Phillips said of Spencer. "We've been saying that for several weeks now, pretty much the whole season. He had three sacks, he had one called back because of a penalty. He's a really good football player, he's overlooked because he doesn't have all the sacks DeMarcus has. He's an outstanding run player, he's hard to block, he makes plays all over the field."
But why did it take so long?
As a rookie, Spencer played behind a veteran in Ellis and then star-in-waiting Ware.
At the time, Ellis said Spencer was going to replace him. When it would actually happen was up to Spencer.
He played some on third downs, and he finished his rookie year with three sacks and 28 tackles. But in 2008 the Cowboys increased his playing time. It upset Ellis, who didn't want to come off the field on passing downs.
Spencer played sparingly. He had knee and hamstring injuries, forcing him to miss four games. He finished with more tackles (59) but just 1.5 sacks.
Then in the offseason, Spencer was arrested for public intoxication in Indianapolis. Spencer said he was embarrassed by what happened because he said that's not the type of person he is.
The Cowboys expressed confidence in Spencer's maturity on and off the field when they cut Ellis this past offseason.
"No one can play this game forever," Spencer said. "Eventually it's always going to be someone else's turn behind me. No one can play the game forever. I did feel that I just had to wait for my time to come."
And yes, while Ellis is tied for 11th in the AFC with seven sacks, he's missed games this year with knee and shoulder injuries, and doctors have told him he needs more surgery when the season ends.
Spencer's biggest thing was learning to switch positions and lose weight.
He played defensive end at Purdue and he lowered his playing weight. He's now in the 250-255 range. Last year, the heaviest he got was 263.
The reduced weight has helped him play fresher in the fourth quarter, the time when defenses are supposed to apply the most pressure.
"At the beginning of the season, I was still a little heavier," Spencer said. "As the season went on, I've been getting in better shape. It's something that I felt like if I got down to, I could be a good player at that weight. I haven't really lost much strength."
For the Cowboys that's a positive thing.