Welcome to the first in a series of NFL player interviews, in which we'll cover issues on and off the field. Subject No. 1 is Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston(notes). The Miami grad, taken as part of a 2006 Texans draft that also produced Mario Williams(notes), DeMeco Ryans(notes) and Owen Daniels(notes), has developed into one of the more underrated linemen in the NFL today. He's started 55 straight games for the team and didn't incur a single penalty in 2009. In Part 1 of my interview with Eric, we talk about media futures, former Texans line coach Alex Gibbs (who's now in Seattle), zone blocking, and the team's recent red zone woes. Stay tuned for the interview's conclusion later Thursday.
Shutdown Corner: You have a great website, you do radio ... basically you're pretty active in traditional and social media. Plus, you're filling in for Peter King with an MMQB column while he's in South Africa. Do you have specific media/broadcasting goals after football?
Eric Winston: You know, I honestly have no idea — right now, I want to push it as far as I can. I really do. The radio show is a pretty big hit; I've gotten a ton of positive feedback from it. It's really kind of stunning because when I first started doing it, I didn't know how the fans would react to me. Sometimes you like a guy and sometimes you don't, and I guess the people who don't like me just haven't said much [laughs], which is nice. This year, we're going to push the show out a bit more; make it two hours where it was an hour before. But definitely during the time I'm playing, I want to get out there as much as I can, because I have a ton of fun with it. It's something I think I'm OK at, and if it opens up a door later in life, I definitely want to pursue it. Because I definitely want to have as many doors open to me as possible.
SC: For the neophyte, what's a thumbnail difference between man and zone blocking?
EW: To me, zone blocking is a conceptual way of saying, "These five guys are going to get these five guys, however they fan out." And you really have a gap; you don't have a man. You have your gap, and we're all going to step to our right, and take them on however they come. I might have the Mike [middle linebacker] one time, and the guard might have the end, and it will work out just fine. Man blocking is more like, "I have that guy, so if he goes that way, I've gotta go get him." And that, to me, is kind of the layman's view, and an easy way to think about it.
SC: Are the Texans still a zone-blocking team?
EW: Yeah, that's pretty much who we are — I don't see us going away from that. That's the way we've been since I've been here. I think we're a zone team that's [going to] change speeds with a man-blocking play — we're not a curveball pitcher. We like to bring the heat with the zone, and we'll mix it up with other stuff.
SC: What was working with Alex Gibbs like? What did you learn from him that you didn't already know?
EW: I learned a ton from Alex — I learned that there isn't just one way to do things. As much as he comes off as a very "my way or the highway" guy, a yeller and a screamer, which he can be ... he respects guys who respect the game and are putting [the] effort in. There were plenty of times where I did something that maybe wasn't what he would have done — instead of saying, "I want to you to do it this way," he'd say, "Why did you do it this way?" And if I had a good answer, he'd let me do it that way. He felt that if those five guys were doing things in a way that was going to work, he didn't want to mess that up. It wasn't such a rigid way of doing things, like a lot of coaches do.
And that's been the best thing about Alex — if you look at him, you know he's never played a down of offensive line in his life [laughs], and he'll be the first to admit it. He told us that he learned a lot of [what he knows] from the guys he coached. That's how things become a little different; it's not theory ... just one guy who played offensive line, and his coach told him how to do this, and another coach told him how to do that. And really, he was smart enough to take all that commentary, put it together, and come up with this [zone-blocking] scheme. It was so original, and I don't know if he was the one who invented it, but he certainly perfected it. And when you're in it, everything makes sense. (Note: Vince Lombardi is generally recognized as the man who brought full-scale zone-blocking to the NFL, though there's no doubt that Gibbs took it several steps further, as Eric suggests.)
SC: What has been the issue with Houston's red-zone inefficiency in the last two seasons? And do you think Alex Gibbs' teams get an unfair debit when it comes to red-zone running?
EW: I've never been a big fan of the idea that when you get near the goal line, you have to put that big, 250-pound running back in. I've played with guys at 185 pounds who are some of the best goal-line backs I've ever seen, and I've played with guys who are 235 and great goal-line backs. Red-zone running is just so different from open-field running; even down at the 25- or 20-yard line. When you're down at the one- or two-yard line, there's a certain way you run. Some guys just know what the hole is going to look like, and how to get in there. So, people who say, "Oh, the lighter guys, that's the problem," it's not really that.
I think our red-zone problems are getting better. It was a huge problem in 2008. I think we were a better offense in 2008 than in 2009, even though the stats don't show it, because we were more balanced. [New offensive coordinator] Rick Dennison will be a big factor; I think that will be his stamp on the team. All the [offensive coordinators] who have come through here have done something special. If you look at the two years [2008-2009] that Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, we had some huge passing numbers, and Matt Schaub(notes) has developed into an elite quarterback. But a few of the wrinkles that Dennison has put in could be a big difference in the red zone, and let's face it, that's the difference between winning and losing — are you going to kick field goals, or are you going to score touchdowns? Great teams score touchdowns.