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.
COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER The Jaguars are counting on Means to roll through opponents this season the same way he powered the offense at the end of '96. [Natrone Means carrying football in game against Buffalo Bills]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 9-7 (second in AFC Central)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 103.1 (17) 256.9 (1) 360.0 (2)
DEFENSE 111.3 (19) 206.5 (16) 317.8 (15)
Good News, Bad News
Mark Brunell led the NFL in passing yards last year, but he was
just the sixth quarterback since 1960 to do so while throwing
more interceptions than TD passes. Still, he is the only one of
those six to lead his team to a playoff victory in the same
Passing Yardage Leaders Who Threw More Interceptions Than TDs*
Yards Int. TDs
Mark Brunell, Jaguars, 1996 4,367 20 19
Drew Bledsoe, Patriots, 1994 4,555 27 25
Fran Tarkenton, Vikings, 1978 3,468 32 25
Joe Ferguson, Bills, 1977 2,803 24 12
Joe Namath, Jets, 1972 2,816 21 19
John Hadl, Chargers, 1971 3,075 25 21
John Hadl, Chargers, 1968 3,473 32 27
Joe Namath, Jets, 1967 4,007 28 26
Joe Namath, Jets, 1966 3,379 27 19
*Since 1960; includes AFL
Harsh reality looms: No more fifth-place schedule and no Mark
Brunell, at least not until early October. Jacksonville will
need him back in time for a three-game road swing that begins on
Oct. 19 in Dallas and continues with games at Pittsburgh and
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 8 (tie)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .516
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Tom Coughlin
QB Mark Brunell 557 att. 353 comp. 63.4% 4,367 yds.
19 TDs 20 int. 84.0 rtg.
RB Natrone Means 152 att. 507 yds. 3.3 avg. 7 rec.
45 yds. 6.4 avg. 3 TDs
FB Ty Hallock 0 att. 0 yds. 0 avg. 1 rec.
5 yds. 5.0 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Keenan McCardell 85 rec. 1,129 yds. 3 TDs
WR Jimmy Smith 83 rec. 1,244 yds. 7 TDs
WR Willie Jackson 33 rec. 486 yds. 3 TDs
TE Derek Brown 17 rec. 141 yds. 0 TDs
PK Mike Hollis 27/27 PATs 30/36 FGs 117 pts.
KR Mike Logan (R)[*] 14 ret. 18.6 avg. 0 TDs
PR Reggie Barlow 0 ret. 0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Tony Boselli 6'7" 323 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Ben Coleman 6'5" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Dave Widell 6'7" 316 lbs. 15 games 14 starts
RG Rich Tylski 6'5" 309 lbs. 16 games 7 starts
RT Leon Searcy 6'4" 313 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Jeff Lageman 44 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
LT Don Davey 30 tackles 1/2 sack
RT John Jurkovic 36 tackles 1 sack
RE Tony Brackens 55 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Kevin Hardy 86 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
MLB Bryan Schwartz 22 tackles 0 int.
OLB Eddie Robinson 87 tackles 1 sack
CB Dave Thomas 36 tackles 0 int.
SS Travis Davis 65 tackles 2 int.
FS Chris Hudson 56 tackles 2 int.
CB Aaron Beasley 29 tackles 1 int.
P Bryan Barker 69 punts 43.7 avg.
Rookie statistics for final college year