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Your Texans: Centers and guards


Center Steve McKinney is an integral part of an improved Texans offensive line.

Center Mike Flanagan has been around the NFL for 11 years before this season. He knows improvement when he sees it.

So when he says the Texans interior line is much better, you listen. The starting guards and centers on this team are all veterans and seem to be working like a well-oiled machine.

"It's definitely getting better," Flanagan said. "I believe it's a good group with the steps that have been made even since last year. We got better as we went along and we're better now than we were at the end of last year. Especially with interior guys, the more time you work together the better you're going to get."

The improvement is in fewer mistakes, more efficient play and one key point.

"Consistency, for the most part, is better," Flanagan said. "That's the main thing with the offensive line. I've got to know where the guy next to me is going to be and he's got to know where I'm going to be. Being familiar with each other so I know how much help I'm going to get on a certain play is critical."

They are a veteran interior line and should be able to help bring along young players like tackle Eric Winston.

"Right now, Winston's the youngest as a second-year player and his game has improved tremendously from last year," sixth-year player Chester Pitts said. "Obviously the rest of us on that line, each of us has at least four or five years under our belts. And it's time. There are no excuses now. It's put up or shut up time. It's time to do something."

Pitts sees the improvement in all areas.

"We are a lot cleaner than what we used to be. We're picking up the blitzes. The quarterback picking up the blitzes, the scheme, players holding themselves to a higher standard. You put all those pieces together and you're going to improve. We have nowhere to go but up. We have a legitimate shot at being better."

Depth should be better as well. Such young players as guards Drew Hodgdon and Kasey Studdard have plenty of talent.

"The previous seasons, after that first group, we just didn't have the same depth," Pitts said. "But it's obvious now, one guy goes down and we don't miss a beat. That's what makes a really good team. The replacement jumps in and you keep rolling down the river. I'm excited. I expect a lot out of this year."

Pitts has started at both left tackle and left guard in his career. The only player in Texans history to start all 80 games, Pitts believes he has improved considerably this season.

"I played the last eight games last season pretty darn well," he said. "My mindset is to find a way to take up where I left off. I took great steps. I hit people in the mouth. I kept the pocket clean.

"There's so many little things you can improve on and that's what I'm trying to focus on. I'm just overall trying to become a better and more complete offensive lineman."

The other guard is sixth-year veteran Fred Weary, who seemed to come into his own last year. He believes the Texans will be very different this season.

"They said we needed a new coach, we got two head coaches," Weary said. "They said we needed a new quarterback and they went out and got a good one. Now it's time to perform. I think this team is ready. We don't want to be considered losers any more. We want to be winners."

Weary knows the line must again cut down on the sacks, which drew much criticism in the past.

"We accepted it," Weary said of the condemnation. "We went out and worked hard and tried to get better each week. We're a tight knit group and we want to go out and grind and get better each day.

"I think the biggest difference this year is the chemistry. A lot of us have been together. We know what to expect. We know what's going on and we know how to make calls and adjust. Now you can come up to the line and say, 'Yeah, I already know what we're talking about here.' That's the biggest thing, just building chemistry."

{QUOTE}One very illustrative point on how good the Texans are is the fact there is a raging battle going on at center. Flanagan, a former Pro Bowler, has the fight of his life trying to keep the starting job from another savvy veteran, Steve McKinney.

"I feel good," Flanagan said. "I feel healthy. Obviously, I proved that I can play in this league. So has Steve. For us, obviously, it's a tough deal to go through, but it's a positive thing. For the Texans, it's a win-win either way."

Coach Gary Kubiak agrees.

"I think we'll need them both," he said. "History tells you that over the last couple of years with both of those kids, to say that one of them is going to hold up for 16 weeks and play every down, I hope it happens, but history says not.

"So I think we're going to need them both throughout the course. And when you look at Steve, he's versatile. He can play guard. That helps the team."

Kubiak likes having the talents of both.

"Mike's strictly a center, but they are both veteran guys that have played a lot of football in this league," Kubiak said. "They get along extremely well, which is important to the nature of the group. And it just gives us flexibility on game day. We can suit seven guys instead of eight, and that helps us on game day."

After not starting the first 31 games of his career with Green Bay, Flanagan moved into the starting role with the Packers in 2001 and became one of the league's best. He has started 70 of 73 games since then and admits it would be difficult to take a back seat now.

"It'd be tough," Flanagan said. "I'm in a situation where I hope it doesn't go this way, but if it turns out that Steve is the guy, I mean, Steve can play.

"So I don't want to say it's an easy pill to swallow, but I'm confidant in what Steve can do. Steve's a hell of a player and he sure as hell didn't last 10 years because he's pretty.

"And neither have I, for that matter. But it's really just one of those situations that I feel I've done the best I can do and I know Steve feels the same way. Ultimately, it's not our decision. That comes from upstairs."

McKinney disagrees only with the pretty part.

"I'd say I was pretty, wouldn't you?" McKinney said laughing. "I disagree with that a little bit, but, at the same time, I think he's right.

"I think it's been definitely a competition. Mike is a good player and he's been around the league for a long time. You don't play this long without doing something right. I knew it would be a tough competition and I think we're just both giving it our all. And we'll see what happens."

McKinney, too, finds the situation hard to believe since he has been in the league nine seasons and has started 130 of 140 games.

"It's a little strange, but, at the same time, it's the way the business goes," he said. "As you get older, there's always going to be competition. They're trying to get the best guys on the field and as a player, you understand and respect that. You've just got to do what you can. You can only control what you do. You can't control what the coaches decide."

It's a surprising situation for a team under construction like the Texans, but probably shows how much better they will be.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Carley is a veteran Houston sportswriter who has covered the NFL for more than 25 years. He has worked for such newspapers as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the National Sports Daily covering such teams as the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders.

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