ANAHEIM — Ram linebacker Shane Conlan had just finished studying game film of Natrone Means on Wednesday when he was asked if the San Diego running back reminds him of any other NFL back he has faced.
Maybe that guy Conlan sees in practice every day?
"Yeah, he's a lot like Jerome Bettis," Conlan said. "He can run over you, and he can make you miss. When you think he's going to make you miss and you stand there and dance with him, he'll run over you."
Means and Bettis are the new wave of running back in the NFL--big, powerful, quick and speedy. A middle linebacker's nightmare.
Both are 22 and were among the top running backs taken in the 1993 draft, Bettis second overall and Means fourth. Both have reached 1,000 yards in a season as a pro.
And while both have excelled in their rookie and sophomore seasons in the NFL, they have found little running room lately.
Bettis, 5 feet 11 and 243 pounds, gained 1,429 yards as a rookie but has ground to a halt in his last six games, failing to reach 100 yards while running behind an offensive line missing three starters who are injured.
He had a goal of reaching 2,000 yards, but through 11 games, he has only 856 yards and three touchdowns.
Means, 5-10 and 240 pounds, is fourth in the NFL with 1,006 yards, becoming the first Charger back to gain at least 1,000 yards in three years. But Means has rushed for only 55 and 59 yards in the last two weeks, and has scored only one touchdown in the past five games.
Big-time or burnout? Which direction are these running backs headed?
"Natrone's the one getting pounded," said Ram safety Marquez Pope, Means' teammate last season in San Diego. "It used to be Marion Butts, and now it's Natrone. And being young, can his body absorb all those lethal hits all the time?"
A good question. Although both backs are capable of wearing down other teams, maybe it's the other way around.
After carrying the ball 35 times at Kansas City and 29 times against Atlanta, Bettis feared the workload would wear him down and he couldn't maintain the pace.
He hasn't. Between rushing and receiving, Bettis has touched the ball on 279 of the Rams' 639 plays (43.6%). He has carried the ball only 25 times in the last two games, averaging fewer than two yards a carry, as the Rams rely more on their passing game.
"It's not frustrating because I know the reason for it," Bettis said of his decreased workload. "It's a situation where we've been plagued with injuries. You have to accept that.
"It takes a toll on you, but you have to fight through it. It's a game where you are going to get hurt at some period in time, and you have to rise above it."
Means carried the ball on 274 of San Diego's 704 plays (39%) but has only 36 carries in the last two games.
"I'm all right," Means said. "I'm not all beat up. I'm holding up well."
Does he think his current pace will lead to a shorter career?
"I guess that's something I'll have to worry about if it comes," he said. "I can't say I don't want the ball, because I do."
The Houston Oilers kept pounding Earl Campbell into the line and he lasted only seven seasons. Butts has lost a step or two with the New England Patriots after carrying the workload in San Diego for five seasons.
But Conlan doesn't think Means shares that destiny.
"Means hasn't taken a lot of hard shots," he said. "Jerome has taken some shots, but we have some line problems.
"Means is an athletic guy. He's not like a Butts or a Campbell, he has some quicks. He's a big guy so you think he's a power guy like Butts was. But he's better than Butts because he can make you miss."
George Dyer, the Rams' defensive coordinator, said Means and Bettis have a combination of size and quickness that make them unique.
"It has evolved to the point that some of those guys, well, they're almost freaks," Dyer said. "The size doesn't bother you as much, but coupled with their quick feet, that's the thing."
Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard went shopping for a back with those characteristics in 1993. Butts was wearing down, and Beathard needed a workhorse similar to John Riggins, one of the featured backs during his years with the Washington Redskins.
The Chargers thought enough of Means to trade a future No. 1 pick to move up in the second round to get him. They signed him to a four-year deal worth $1.5 million and groomed him for a season under Butts.
Ram scouts said they liked Means when he came out of North Carolina, but instead drafted Bettis with the 10th-overall pick. Means was the fourth running back taken behind Arizona's Garrison Hearst, Bettis and Minnesota's Robert Smith.
Was Means upset he wasn't taken in the first round?
"I can't sit here and say I was . . ., " he said. "I've come out and proven my point. Put up my numbers compared to the other first-round guys, and I have proven that people should be thinking, 'What if . . . ' "