Natrone Means, the 245-pound Jacksonville running back known as
the Bomb, remembers vividly when the bomb went off. On Feb. 29,
1996, Means, then the 23-year-old star halfback of the Chargers,
thought his career had been blown to bits. "My agent [Tank
Black] called me and said, 'I just got off the phone with [San
Diego general manager] Bobby Beathard, and he said they're going
to release you,'" Means recalls. "Then Coach [Bobby] Ross
called, talked to me for two minutes, said, 'Sorry, Natrone, it
just didn't work out,' and that was it. I was in shock."
Fearing a contract holdout for the second consecutive year and
concerned by the big back's poor conditioning, San Diego did
indeed waive the man who had run for 1,350 yards in '94 and
helped lead the Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX. The first thought
that ran through Means's head? "Wow, what am I going to sell
first?" he says with a laugh. "I mean, I wasn't going to be one
of those guys who's out of the league and riding around in a
Eighteen months later the Jaguars are counting on Means to drive
their offense. In light of his spectacular stretch over four
games late in '96--and a preseason knee injury suffered by
quarterback Mark Brunell (untested Rob Johnson will start at
least the first three games)--Means oddly enough looms as the
Jaguars' ticket back to the playoffs.
When Jacksonville claimed him 11 days after his release by San
Diego, Means was somewhat apprehensive, given coach Tom
Coughlin's reputation as an uptight disciplinarian. After all,
Means's relationship with Ross, another taskmaster, had been
rocky from the start. In November 1995 the two men had a heated
argument on the practice field, and Means stormed off. He
recalls Ross's screaming, "Natrone, if you walk off this field,
you and I have a problem." Means says he turned and yelled,
"Coach, I think we've had a problem since the day I got here."
Things have gone much more smoothly with Coughlin. Says Means,
"At our first meeting, he told me, 'I'm sure you've heard all
sorts of stuff about me. It's all b.s. But I am the kind of
coach who'll tell you what to expect.' After that, we coexisted."
Means struggled to lose weight early on, broke his thumb in a
preseason game and was beaten out by second-year back James
Stewart. With two games left in the season Means had only 305
rushing yards. "I was like, 'Wow, maybe I was a product of the
system in San Diego,'" he says. "But I was getting to know the
offensive linemen, and they were getting to know me."
Then, without warning, the Bomb went off and blew the Jaguars
all the way to the AFC title game. In the final two weeks Means
ran for 92 yards against Seattle and 110 against Atlanta. In
Jacksonville's first-round playoff victory over the Bills, he
ground out a career-high 175 yards. The next week Means ran for
140 yards as the Jaguars stunned the Broncos. Only the Super
Bowl-bound Patriots could contain Means, limiting him to 43
yards on 19 carries.
Coughlin was equally impressed by Means's performance after last
season. Means showed up for enough of the team's off-season
workouts to avoid Coughlin's dreaded conditioning test at the
start of camp. The test requires players to run five consecutive
120-yard sprints and keep their average time under a specific
standard for their position. "You have to keep running it every
day until you make it," Means says. "There's no way you'll catch
me running that again."
Says Coughlin, "He's been outstanding. Once we got Natrone's
weight down into the 240-245 area, it has been stable. That
means he's starting to get a real handle on it." The same can be
said of Means's career in general.