Jonathan Allen, left, and Daron Payne are the among the Redskins' collection of former Alabama standouts. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The hidden force behind the Washington Redskins’ rise to first place in the NFC East does not sit in their locker room. Alabama Coach Nick Saban rules his college football empire 700 miles to the southwest with six national championships and a glare that can make giants weep. But inside the Redskins’ practice facility, his voice is constantly heard.

Saban’s power over the players is not overt. His words do not boom through practice or fill meeting rooms. Instead, his impact is more subtle, delivered not by him, but through six of his former Alabama players on the Redskins’ roster who quietly spread his message of resilience and accountability until his words become everybody’s mantra — even if they have no idea where it is from.

“We’re not used to losing,” rookie linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton says. “We’re so used to Coach Saban’s standard and the way he goes about business every day that it kind of carries over and rubs off on our team this year.”

Something has changed this season for a Washington team that has long been the definition of mediocrity. An emphasis on toughness, set in the spring by Coach Jay Gruden, has been embraced by the players, who have been grinding out games with a methodical running attack and a fierce defense that has often stymied the opponent’s best offensive player.

Many of the players say their locker room is different this year. Old cliques are gone, silliness has been muted, and a strong disgust for bad play is being expressed in harsher tones. While some of this new atmosphere comes from the addition of stoic veterans such as running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Alex Smith, as well as the increasingly powerful demands from defensive players D.J. Swearinger and Pernell McPhee, something bigger is taking over the locker room: an attitude.

This change was apparent the day after a sluggish preseason loss to the Denver Broncos, when the defense stormed onto the practice field the next day demanding to fix mistakes from a game that didn’t even count. It was obvious after several players said they were angered by the lazy way with which they had prepared for a home loss to the Indianapolis Colts. And it was clear in the minutes after a humiliating 43-19 defeat in New Orleans, when defensive end Jonathan Allen, perhaps the team’s most influential former Alabama star, said he couldn’t wait to watch the game tape to see what had gone wrong.

“We definitely needed a culture change here,” Allen says now, two weeks after that loss.

Asked later what he meant, Allen — just a second-year player — pauses, picking his words carefully, making sure he doesn’t overstate their impact.

“You have to get used to learning how to win,” he says. “I feel we are starting to do that. You’re seeing it in us winning games that we might not have won.”

Pressed about how a team learns to win, Allen replies: “It’s just consistency and expectation. It’s the process.”

And that comes from Alabama?

“Yes, 100 percent!” Allen says. “That’s where I learned it from.”


Redskins players who toiled under Nick Saban at Alabama are trying to bring his winning philosophy to Washington. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

‘They’re ready to go’

A few days before the start of the season, Gruden sat in a lobby at the Redskins’ facility, talking about Allen and fellow defensive lineman Daron Payne, a rookie who also came from Alabama. The two players were the Redskins’ first-round choices in the previous two drafts, and he expected them to be a big part of the defense — which they have become, most notably by fueling the team’s big improvement against the run. But in talking about the way Allen and Payne had arrived with preternatural maturity and understanding of complex schemes, Gruden suddenly realized he was talking about Alabama.

“You know, it excites you when you get a player from that school,” he said. “They’re already well trained. They’re ready to go.”

In subsequent interviews, Gruden has come short of saying the team seeks to bring in Alabama players, going only as far as: “If it’s close between a Bama guy and [a player from another school], you probably go with the Bama guy because of the big-game atmosphere and the way he’s been coached.”

But no other college is nearly as well-represented in the Redskins’ locker room. In addition to Allen, Payne and Hamilton, former Alabama players include second-year linebacker Ryan Anderson as well as offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio and rookie wide receiver Cam Sims, who are both on injured reserve. In some ways, that such a large chunk of the active roster played at Alabama shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Alabama always has one of the country’s best recruiting classes, loading its roster with five-star prospects.

And yet other schools have big recruiting classes, too. But there’s a difference, those who have played at Alabama say, that comes not just with talent, but in the way they were coached.

“A lot of teams have a lot of good people or a lot of good things to say but, dude, it’s hard to explain. It’s something you’ve got to live through,” Kouandjio says. “At Bama, it’s like sharpening iron every day.”

“I honestly don’t think anybody works harder than us [at Alabama],” Hamilton says. “I think our offseason prepares us for the long haul; all the work we put in in the offseason prepares us for when things get rocky. In December, when it’s crunchtime, we don’t crumble.”

Showing it on the field

Surviving adversity is not something Washington has done well in recent years. After going 28-35-1 in his first four seasons as coach, Gruden decided earlier this year that his team needed to be tougher. He made offseason workouts and training camp practices more physical and told the players there was going to be an emphasis on harder hitting. He says he likes Alabama players because “they’re all about ball” and “have that confidence [and] work ethic already instilled.” It is no accident that five of the team’s six Alabama players were drafted or added as rookie free agents in the past two years.

This is why Allen’s words, in particular, seem so sharp. Despite his youth, Allen has become a leader on the defense, the player who speaks most about getting through adversity. Still, unlike many players who talk about overcoming calamity, Allen, Payne and the defensive players around him — who increasingly speak with the same language he uses — are showing it.

The Redskins have only scored six more points than they have given up, and yet they are 4-2. That has included back-to-back wins against the Panthers and Cowboys in which they held off late comeback bids to seal victory in the final minute.

“The way you deal with adversity is to focus on the things you have to do to be successful,” Kouandjio says. “It’s like Jonathan Allen being so excited to look at the film [from New Orleans]. How you become successful is . . . to see where you messed up and do specific things to improve your chances. One of the big things at Bama is: ‘Don’t look at the big picture.’ It takes time to do that, but literally it’s how I live my life, because of what I learned there.”

When asked this week about how he teaches players to handle bad situations, Saban said, “If you can’t overcome adversity and move on to the next play and learn from the mistake that you made, I think you are going to have a difficult time not only getting better, but you’re going to have a difficult time psychologically maintaining the intensity you need to be a great player."

Among many things, Saban is a man of one-line life lessons. He has dozens of sayings that he repeats in meetings and practices and pregame speeches, uttering them so many times that they rattle in his players’ heads until they become a guide for nearly everything they do.

High achievers don’t like mediocre people and mediocre people don’t like high achievers, so you have to choose one and be one.

Don’t focus on what you want; focus on what you have to do to get what you want.

Embrace the challenge.

Or the four simple words that still awe Hamilton almost a year removed from college:

So what, now what?

“It happened, so what are you going to do about it?” Hamilton says. “Are we going to have a hangover on Monday, or are we going to get through this?”

Then there is the gem that remains plastered in Allen’s brain.

You don’t want to be that blinking light on the Christmas tree.

“If one light on the Christmas tree doesn’t work, you don’t focus on everything that works; you focus on that one little missed imperfection that you can’t stand,” Allen says.

He pauses, letting out a small chuckle.

“When you think about it, you’re like, ‘Damn, that is true,’ because if you have one light on the Christmas tree that doesn’t work, it’s going to p--- you off. It’s not perfect.”


Jonathan Allen (left) and Ryan Anderson were teammates at Alabama before becoming the Redskins' first two picks in the 2017 draft. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

The breaking point

While the Alabama Redskins might laugh as they recall Saban’s sayings, there is a seriousness to his words. The coach’s goal, says his longtime strength and conditioning coordinator, Scott Cochran, is to find his players’ “breaking point, every single day.” The thinking is that when a player hits that moment when he doesn’t believe he can go any farther, he learns that he can. And once a player can see that not only is he reaching a new limit, but that the player beside him is as well, “Oh, now your skill level rises, because you see his best,” Cochran continues.

Cochran, who has been with Saban for national championships at LSU and Alabama, has a Saban saying of his own — one that, much like the players do, he takes through his daily life.

If you’re not coaching, you’re letting it happen.

“If I tell a player to give me 10 pullups and he only gives me nine, I can’t function until he gives me 10,” Cochran says. “I can’t sleep that night because I feel I failed the kid.”

Then Cochran starts to talk about the Alabama players who are in Washington, many of whom come back to school to train with him in the offseason.

“They’re not going to settle,” he says. “That same thinking [about how] a guy has to do more than nine pullups, that becomes ingrained. They’re not going to let it ride. They’re going to keep working until they won’t get it wrong.”

The morning after the New Orleans loss, Allen got up and watched the game tape. Later that day, he watched it again with his coaches at the team facility.

“It sucked,” he says, several days and two victories later.

“But there were several things on that tape that helped us to be in position to win the last two games,” he adds. “I mean, you never want to watch something where you’re not playing well, but it was necessary for this team.

“You’ve got to watch it.”

Otherwise, you’ll be that blinking light on the Christmas tree.

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