O-line position battle hits center stage

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Steve McKinney will start at center for the first time this preseason when the Texans play the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday.

Two of the Texans' most massive players are facing one of the team's fiercest position battles. Mike Flanagan and Steve McKinney are battling for starting duties at center, but these veterans treat the competition like it's another day at the office.

"Me and Mike are just taking a low-profile approach to it," McKinney said. "We're just going out there and competing."

The business-like attitude stems from the players' combined 20 years of NFL experience. The veterans have learned that excelling in the league comes down to working hard and focusing on the job at hand.

"McKinney and I- we're both proven players in this league," Flanagan said. "We're not speaking negatively about either one. We understand the situation. We've been doing it for a long time. Whoever plays better is going to get the job."

It's as simple as that. Well, not really.

McKinney, who signed with Houston in 2002, can play multiple positions on the offensive line. In his four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, McKinney started at left guard.

He began switching between guard and center when he joined the Texans because the team desperately needed more depth at the center spot. And McKinney has played in all 80 games in Texans' history largely because of his versatility and athleticism.

The lineman hasn't claimed a favorite position. Instead, he has turned to Texans' coaches to make the call, and lately they've been calling his number for the center spot.

"Center's a position that I played for four years- four of the last five years actually," McKinney said. "So I feel pretty comfortable at it. It's a position I can get away from for a while and then bounce right back to it and not have any problems."

Last season, McKinney actually did move away from center. He switched to guard when the Texans signed Flanagan in the offseason. After a cracked rib forced Flanagan to the sidelines, McKinney played center for the last two weeks of 2006.

McKinney and the offensive line ended the season with strong showings in the team's wins against Indianapolis, last year's Super Bowl Champs, and the Cleveland Browns, giving McKinney a momentum advantage going into this preseason.

That momentum, however, isn't slowing down the 300-pound Flanagan. The rib has healed and the nagging injuries have subsided.

"I feel real good," Flanagan said. "Nothing's holding me back as far as health wise. It's just McKinney and I going out there to play."

Texans offensive line coach John Benton says Flanagan's stout physical nature is better suited for center, but McKinney's agility adds an element of speed to the line's movement. Each style gives the offense a different look.

"They've been neck and neck," Benton said. "It's important to know that they're both excellent football players. We're looking for one that gives us an advantage over the other."

To discern those advantages, Benton is studying the preseason games. So far, Flanagan has been starting at center and McKinney has been playing guard. Coaches tested Flanagan's endurance in the team's win against the Arizona Cardinals, and the center passed with flying colors.

"I think Mike played very well for us last night," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "He played the whole half."

McKinney will get his turn in Saturday's game against Dallas. It's likely he will play well into the third quarter as the Texans face an extremely physical Cowboys defense.

"I feel comfortable about making the team, but I want to be starting," McKinney said. "So I think in preseason games that's where it's going to be determined.

"I'm preparing for Dallas like it's a regular season game. I'm going out on the field as prepared as I can be for a regular season game. Even though it's the preseason, I've got to treat it like the regular season and be ready to."

Benton says he will look at McKinney's individual play, but the coach is more interested in the cohesiveness of the offensive line with McKinney in the center spot.

"It'll be the first time we play- we played them extensively last week, but we'll go way into the third quarter with the first group," Benton said. "So you're looking for them to function as a unit."

The Texans' offensive line lacked that cohesion during the fledgling years of the franchise, often taking the blame for high sack totals and low rushing yardage. Over the last few seasons, the line has made vast strides, cutting their sack total from 68 in 2005 to 43 in 2006 and increasing their rushing first downs by 17, from 89 to 106.

Flanagan expects those numbers to keep improving.

"I see us better than we were last year," Flanagan said. "And we're going to continue to get better."

McKinney says the line stepped up drastically during the preseason, largely because of the new offensive unit behind him.

"I think that we made big strides already," McKinney said. "I think the new scheme, the skills players that we added- at the quarterback, the running back and the receivers- I think they're really going to help us."

McKinney and Flanagan are excited to debut these schemes in the regular season, and they know the best man for the job will be helming at center. They are professionals who know how the football business runs. They are also friends.

"They're both very impressive in terms of carrying themselves to be the best they can be," Benton said. "Off the field, they are very good friends and continue to be. And they certainly understand that our responsibility is to put the best players on the field. While they are obviously rooting for themselves, they are also rooting for each other."

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