By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 12:18 AM
If you want to turn a locker room around in a hurry, fill it with a bunch of guys who really need the jobs. Pack it with players who are just happy to have contracts, who don't think certain work is too menial for them, who have a sense of sweaty desperation. That's the secret to how the Washington Redskins have been playing. A team that a year ago was overpaid and too precious for its own good is now leading the league in hard-fought victories.
Run your eye down the Redskins' roster, and notice how many players have recently won starting jobs by doing the dirty work of special teams, running down punts and kickoffs. Anthony Armstrong. Lorenzo Alexander. Chris Wilson. Consider the number of guys who have worked their way up from the practice squad to the active roster. Ryan Torain. Brandon Banks. Keiland Williams. Count the undrafted free agents who have become regular contributors on the field: Seven of them.
See what's happening?
Each week, the shape of the team the Redskins are building becomes more apparent. Coach Mike Shanahan doesn't give much away about his philosophy or his methods, but a couple of things are plain. One is his sharp eye for overlooked and undervalued players, whom he seems to prefer over coddled draft choices. Another is his penchant for using special teams to school those players. He's clearly sifting and grooming a new generation of starters through the utility squads, so if you want to see the Redskins' stars of the future, watch them closely.
Take Armstrong, who at 27 is poised to become one of the more breathlessly exciting and pleasantly unforeseen successes the organization has had in years. Just a couple of years ago, he was in a sandlot, earning $200 a game in the Intense Football League, and clerking in a jewelry store to cover his bills. Undrafted out of Division II West Texas A&M, he was cut by the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins before he caught on with the Redskins in 2009 when he impressed special teams coach Danny Smith with his speed, the earnestness of his effort and his hunger.
"I've been cut a couple of times, and I'm not going back on the street," he told Smith doggedly. Since then, in addition to blinding speed, he has shown focus, unstinting work, and attention to every detail of route running.
"He will do anything," Smith says emphatically. "A lot of guys will tell you that, and then fall off. He don't fall off. He's there every day. And that's what we want. Shanahan has been great at instilling that. Everybody is accountable; everybody carries his own weight. Everybody has to have a role, and he's done a great job of identifying that and defining that for the players."
Shanahan devoted significant time last summer to studying tape of Smith's personnel, hunting for some badly needed young talent to complement the Redskins' core of proven greats such as Chris Cooley, Santana Moss and London Fletcher. As Smith will tell you, special teams play is a great diagnostic tool for spotting athleticism.
"It's the fastest 15 minutes in football," he says, "and there's so much space on the field."
But just as important, the unit is a spearhead, a place where the team's critical values are formed. Shanahan obviously views it as a test of mentality and commitment, and the Redskins are learning that it can be a path to promotion, or to an exit.
"It takes away people being selfish," Armstrong says.
Another special teams player who showed up as underused and undervalued was Alexander. An undrafted mid-sized tweener of a defensive lineman out of UC Berkeley in 2005, he was cut by both Carolina and Baltimore before the Redskins signed him to the practice squad in 2006.
"If you make this team, you're going to make it on special teams," Smith told him. He did whatever Smith asked and evolved into a useful role player, filling in on the offensive and defensive lines, at fullback and at tight end.
"I had to find my other ways to shine," Alexander says.
When Shanahan's staff watched the special teams film of Alexander, they saw a player of underrated athleticism, a murderous open-field tackler with the speed to close gaps.
"They have a good eye," he says. "Even though they missed on me in the draft, they're figuring it out now. I always say its not where you start it's where you finish."
Collectively, the presence of such players is changing the franchise. Off the field, there is no more finger-pointing and complaining about preferential treatment for highly compensated stars.
"I think it's good that we've got a lot of guys that were low draft picks or undrafted, because you got to come in with that mind-set anyway," Alexander said. "So to have the whole team doing that, holding everybody accountable from top to bottom, on the field I think it translates."
Anyone in the NFL will tell you that not much separates one team from another. Every squad has talent; every coach can spot and counter tendencies. The separation is often an indefinable attitude.
"It comes down to will and toughness at times; it's not always awesome scheme," said Wilson, another special-teamer contending for a bigger role at linebacker. "When you've got two professionals who have done their homework and anticipated correctly, you're going to have those type of dogfights."
Alexander predicts more hard-chargers from Smith's unit will be moving up in the near future.
"They're starting to come out," Alexander says. "You're going to see more of these young guys on special teams starting to shine."
You want another name? Watch for Darrel Young, the reserve fullback. Ask anyone in the Redskins' locker room to name a contender for more playing time, and Young is mentioned.
"He's scratching at the door," Smith says with satisfaction.
The Redskins are slowly but surely being taken over by this crowd. Smith maintains that the hard-knocks kids who rise up through his ranks tend to form better habits and the right mindset than other young players who get instant playing time by virtue of draft status or pure talent.
"They've got to understand the physical aspects of the game, the mentality, the work ethic at this level to be a pro, and that comes up through special teams," Smith says. He adds: "And the guys that do it that way are much more appreciative."