Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan values desire over pedigree

The Washington Post's panel of football insiders discusses the Redskins' penchant for playing close games and reviews the emergence of Anthony Armstrong.
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.

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