Today I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to one of the original Houston Texans, offensive lineman Steve McKinney. For those of you who are new to following the team, Steve is a Houston native who attended Clear Lake H.S. and Texas A&M University before being drafted in 1998 by the Indianapolis Colts. McKinney signed with the expansion Texans in 2002 and was a bright spot for the team and a model of consistency to the tune of 70 games in five years. McKinney helped anchor the interior of the offensive line until he tore his ACL in 2007.
Steve provided me with interesting insight into what it was like to start a franchise, what he thinks about the Texans now, how they might draft and what life is like after football. Overall it was refreshing to sit down and talk to a fellow native Houstonian about football and the Texans.
TT: First of all let me say that it’s a real pleasure for me to get the opportunity to talk to you. The Texans’ first year was 2002, which was the same year that I joined the Marine Corps. I remember my father sending me clippings regarding the new team while I was in boot camp, one clipping of which was the news that they had signed their first unrestricted free agent, a guy by the name of Steve McKinney. What was it like to be a part of a brand new franchise from the very beginning?
Steve: For me it was very special. Being a Houston native and growing up here in Texas, it was really a dream come true. I knew when I became an unrestricted agent in Indianapolis, Houston was the very first team we called. I made it real clear that I wanted to be here and they wanted me here and we worked a deal out pretty quick. I thought it was important that I be the first unrestricted free agent that they sign. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted represent the franchise. Being a native Texan, I wanted to be the first one they signed. It was all fun, it was great and a wonderful time for me.
TT: Now that you’re done playing football, what are you doing to keep yourself busy?
Steve: Well, actually I have a lot of things going on. I’m doing some commercial real estate and some things like that. You know, one of the things that keeps me the most busy is my ranch, McKinney Whitetails. It’s a hunting operation. We hunt whitetails, as well as exotics, and actually raise whitetails as well. We do ranch stocking and consulting as well for different ranches. It’s a passion for me. I grew up hunting in that area over in Centerville and I just love being in the outdoors. I love being in a stand and chasing those whitetail deer around.
TT: That was one thing I heard repeatedly about you--your love for the outdoors. How much time a year do you spend hunting?
Steve: Probably a lot more than I should. I actually do an outdoor radio show every Saturday on 97.5 (The Ticket) here in Houston from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. That’s a commitment that I’ve made and basically I just do that so I can talk about hunting and fishing with other outdoor enthusiasts and share the passion, and just try and promote the sport of hunting. It’s something I feel very passionate about and I want people to pass it on to their kids. I want kids to get out into the woods and let them experience it because if we don’t pass it on, it’s just going to fade away. Pretty soon we’re going to have a lot more deer than people to hunt them and it’s going to become an issue. I don’t want to see that happen. So, I spend a lot of time going back and forth to my ranch and working with my animals.
TT: It was good to see you come back to Houston where you grew up. Are you still close with the Texans organization and/or any Texans players?
Steve: Yeah, I’m still friends with some of them and we keep in touch. I have worked with the organization since I left doing some neighborhood promotional deals, things like that. I have no ill feelings towards the franchise and I still have a lot of respect for Bob McNair and what he’s done here in Houston. I have good memories from my years with the Texans.
TT: Do you consider yourself a Texans fan?
Steve: Absolutely. I root for them and watch them every Sunday. I enjoy watching them. It brings back some old memories and hopefully we get to see them have a winning season this year.
TT: Speaking of which, the Texans are coming off two 8-8 seasons. What do you think the team is missing in order to be a playoff contender?
Steve: I don’t know if they’re missing anything, honestly. I think it’s just a matter of them being able to pull out these games, especially early in the year. They need to win the games they’re supposed to win and win the games that they have won. I mean, don’t let the games slip away in the fourth quarter like they did with Indianapolis last year. You take away that game and the Oakland game at the end of the year they should have won, there’s 10 wins right there. We can say that every year, talk about the games we shoulda/coulda won, but the fact is instead of talking about it we have to get it done. We have to win those games and then we’ll be a playoff contender.
TT: The first chance they’ll get to fulfill any needs is in two days in the 2009 NFL Draft. Considering your intimate knowledge of the franchise, what players do you think they’re considering with the 15th overall pick?
Steve: I don’t know what players specifically because it seems more time than not that all of these mock drafts can get the first few picks right but after that things start getting jumbled up. Just because you’re seeing one player on every mock draft doesn’t mean that’s who we’re going to get. I do think they’re going to go defense. I think they’re going to go with either outside linebacker or safety. I think they’ll take the best available player with that pick. If they don’t, it will be fun to watch but you never know because things change but I’ll be surprised if they went any other direction.
TT: You never know what’s going to happen in a Kubiak draft.
Steve: (Laughs) No, you don’t.
TT: The favorite first round draft prospects among our readers are Clay Matthews III and Malcolm Jenkins. What do you think of those two players and how do you think they would fit on the team?
Steve: I think they’d both do really well, I really do. I think Matthews is a good player and he has good upside. I know between him and Brian Cushing, they’re right there together, but I think with Bruce Matthews just joining the Texans staff, if those two players are available and they’re going to go with linebacker, hmm… It would be hard to see them not go with Clay. Jenkins is quite a prospect too; he can play both cornerback and safety. I would be happy with both of those picks.
TT: You played for Coach Kubiak. How was his offense, and specifically the blocking scheme he employed, different that the other schemes you played in?
Steve: Really it’s not that much different. Nobody really invents new plays other than the Wildcat offense, and they didn’t even invent that; they stole it from many years past. It’s not so much that the team runs different plays; it’s that they concentrate on fewer amounts of plays. For instance, when I was in Indianapolis, we ran a lot of man-blocking schemes where the guard is pulling around, but when I was with Kubiak, it was all zone schemes so nobody was pulling, it was all zone left and zone right. That’s all we did, and that’s all they’re doing now. They’re doing even less plays now in the run game than when I was there. I think that’s part of the reason why they had some success, along with the fact that they had a good passing game, which helps your running game, and they also had a good running back in Steve Slaton, who was getting some good yardage for them downfield. Otherwise, the reason they’re successful running the football is because they don’t run a lot of plays. They focus on a few plays and get really good at running those.
TT: Which scheme did you prefer, the man or zone blocking scheme?
Steve: Personally, I’m more suited for a man blocking system. Coach always told me that I was suited for a zone blocking scheme, but I’d been in a man-blocking scheme for so long, even in college, it was just what I was more comfortable and familiar with. I think they’re both effective. If run right, with the right personnel, they can both be effective.
TT: What are the characteristics of the linemen best suited for a zone blocking scheme?
Steve: You’ve got to have a guy with quick feet, good lower body strength and good leverage, and you have to be very disciplined. That’s what it’s all about with zone blocking. It’s about getting low, driving your legs and keeping your head where it’s supposed to be. You don’t ever turn back on a guy. You just keep moving. It’s like a bunch of elephants, with their trunks grabbing the other elephants’ tails, just in one big line running. That’s the way it is in a zone blocking scheme. Everybody’s got their gap and you have to stay in your gap. That’s why it takes a unit; all five guys have to work in tandem to make it work.
TT: It’s hard to judge offensive lineman because there are no official stats, such as sacks or tackles for loss, used to measure their performance. What do you think is that best way to gauge an O-lineman’s skill?
Steve: It’s hard if you’re an average fan and you don’t know offensive line technique and you don’t know what a guy is supposed to be doing. You kind of end up judging guys as a group. Or with a left tackle, it’s how well he blocks a guy like Dwight Freeney the whole game. “Did Dwight Freeney get any sacks? No? Okay, well, the tackle must have had a great game.” Truth is, maybe he didn’t have a great game, but the TE was chipping him the whole time and the running back was blocking him half the time. The coaches and the G.M.s are really the only ones who can evaluate the talent on the offensive line and then the word gets out. You build a reputation, the coaches let the media know, and the media lets everyone else know.
TT: For the Texans to have their first ever winning season, they’ll have to take care of business in the AFC South. What do you think about the current state of the division, and if you have to rank the teams what order would they be in?
Steve: Hmmm...it would be tough. I think if I had to rank them, I’d put them at Indianapolis, Tennessee, Houston and then Jacksonville. It’s a tough division, it really is. I could put Tennessee in front of Indianapolis but in my opinion, as long as Indianapolis has Peyton Manning they’re going to be the team to beat. I don’t think Tennessee can repeat what they did last year with 13 wins. They got on a good roll and the ball bounced their way, but I don’t think they can do that again.
TT: What do you think of the Texans’ chances to make their first ever playoff appearance in 2009?
Steve: I think they’ve got a good chance. I really do. I think they’ve got to beat Indianapolis and Tennessee both at least one time. If they can split with both of those teams, I think they’ll make the playoffs.
TT: Steve, it was a real pleasure to talk to one of the original Texans. We appreciate your time today and everything you did to set this franchise up for success. You will always be known as an original cornerstone of our team.
Steve: I appreciate it, man; that’s kind of you. Best of luck to you, and good luck to the team this year.
Steve was incredibly cool to talk to, and took it easy on me despite it being my first ever interview. He also wanted me to mention that he has been working to promote B.R.P.’s new Can Am Spyder Roadster. You can test drive the Spyder, the next dimension in open road riding, at Pro Power Sports in Conroe on Friday April 23rd, and/or at Team Mancuso Power Sports South in Lamark on Saturday April 24th. For more information, visit www.spyderhouston.com.
I hope you enjoyed this piece, and hopefully this will be the first of many more Texans interviews to come.