The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Jonathan Allen speaks, the Commanders listen

Jonathan Allen has been a vocal leader during the Washington Commanders' resurgence this season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The room of dignitaries included Washington NFL stars past and present, not to mention Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and the man for whom the road that leads to Jonathan Allen’s workplace is named: former coach Joe Gibbs. On this night last spring at the Ritz Carlton Tysons Corner, there would be cocktails, and there would be dinner. There would, too, be speeches.

Youngkin, of course, is a professional speaker accustomed to such a stage and delivered his remarks smoothly and smartly. When it was Allen’s turn, someone asked him if he had notes.

“Nah,” the Washington Commanders defensive tackle said. “I’ll just read the room.”

He read the room. And then he captured it.

“I’ve always believed that being genuine is better than being more rehearsed,” Allen said this week.

That night, Allen spoke extemporaneously and passionately for eight or nine minutes. When he was done, Youngkin congratulated him as the best speaker of the evening.

“Jon could run for Congress,” said Nick Turner, a friend who was an assistant coach for Allen’s high school team in Ashburn. “He’s one of the better speakers you’ll ever be around.”

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In this, his sixth NFL season, Jonathan Allen is a wrecking ball of a defensive tackle, among the best players at his position, and a key to the Commanders’ revival that has them in the playoff hunt with five games to go. More than that, though, he has found his voice. A first-round draft pick is supposed to make an impact with his body and his play. Increasingly, Allen is making an impact with his words and his emotions.

“He’s the leader of our team,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “He’s a pro’s pro.”

It’s hard to have a conversation about Allen without that thread coming up: his professionalism. That is true during the weekly three-hour glimpse the public gets into how he handles his job. But it’s also when the lights aren’t on and no one’s around.

“He’s not going to do something or say something because of the perception,” said Jim Tomsula, Allen’s position coach for his first three years in the NFL. “He’s going to do and say what he thinks is right. If he’s wrong, he’ll come back and say, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll fix it.’ … He’s got the credibility because of what people see on Sundays. But that is one-tenth of why he has the credibility. It’s everything else. It’s the day-to-day.”

And it shows up everywhere. Years ago, when Allen was still playing college ball at Alabama, Turner was at the house of former Washington tight end Chris Cooley, who was in the process of moving. They had some massive couches and needed help. Turner called Allen, whom Cooley had known since his days playing at nearby Stone Bridge High. So here came a star defensive player at the country’s most prominent college football program to haul furniture, anonymously and diligently.

“He’s just an incredibly hard worker, and he’s so dedicated,” said Cooley, who back then spent lots of time around his former team as a member of the radio broadcast crew. “He’s willing to do anything — to the point of him helping me move. He didn’t have to help me move. It wasn’t because I was Chris Cooley. It’s because that’s who Jonathan Allen is. …

“I wouldn’t want a different guy in the locker room. I wouldn’t want a different guy on the practice field. I’m so proud of him. He’s incredible.”

When Washington was considering whom to select with the 17th pick in the 2017 draft, Tomsula was the team’s new defensive line coach. He put Allen above all the other defensive linemen in the draft. But that was only in part because of how he played.

“When you meet the guy, he’s got the ‘it,’” Tomsula said by phone this week. “He’s a different kind of person. The way he was raised. He’s a team guy. He’s a passion guy. He’s a hard worker. He’s smart. He knows right from wrong. He has common sense. I could talk about him all day.”

The work ethic comes from growing up in a military household; Allen’s father was an Army sergeant first class. But oratory skills took time to hone. Allen isn’t naturally extroverted, more the type to open up only to those he knows well. At Alabama, he received training on how to answer questions in interviews. As a prominent athlete, the opportunities to speak publicly — whether it be before his team or at a charity event — multiplied. Allen had to grow into the role.

“When I first started public speaking, I would always try to remember what I was going to try to say,” Allen said. “It never really came across as genuine — or even me. So one thing I try to do is just try to remember two or three points that I’m going to try to speak about, and the rest is just — go for it, whatever happens when I go out there.”

What happens comes off as honest and pure. At an event such as the one last spring, which was to support Gibbs’s Youth for Tomorrow charity, Allen normally touches on subjects close to his heart, particularly support for homeless kids. He has cadence. He has rhythm. He connects.

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But even as he became an obvious focal point that opposing offenses had to worry about — nine sacks and 10 tackles for a loss in 2021, 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss in 12 games this year — he didn’t naturally slide into the role of Commanders hype man. Not until defensive end Chase Young blew out his knee midway through last season did Allen step forward. He did so reluctantly.

“I don’t need to give a pregame speech,” Allen said. “But I asked them: ‘Do you like it? I don’t have to do it. It doesn’t bother me if I do it or don’t do it. It’s whatever you guys want.’ And everyone I talked to said, ‘Keep doing it.’”

So whether it’s with the defense or the whole team, he does. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin has similar sway in the locker room. Allen, though, has developed and displayed considerable range. In the locker room after a thorough but incomplete victory over Houston last month, Coach Ron Rivera gave Allen the floor. He was calm and measured.

“When we win, sometimes it’s hard to see the lesson, because we’re excited,” he told his teammates. “And I don’t want to dampen the mood, but we got to understand: That first half, we really showed what we can do. Defense in the second half, we can’t come out here and be sloppy. … I ain’t calling anybody out. I’m calling everybody out. Because we’ve got to be better.”

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That set the standard for the following week’s task against Atlanta. On the field before that game, Allen gathered his defensive teammates around him. The crescendo was spine-tingling.

“We don’t rise to the occasion,” he said. “We don’t play with emotion. We fall back on what we do.

“After I tell you that, I’m going to look into your soul, so you know I’m for real. Ain’t no scared in my heart. This is what I do. I live this. I bleed this. This is how I feed my family. When we come out, we don’t got to say a word. We’re going to knock your ass out, and they’re going to feel that, for real.”

It seems so natural, a gift. Allen still claims it’s not.

“I think I’m still nervous,” he said. “But it’s not nervous as far as being crippling. It just makes me a little anxious, ready to get up there and getting going. I’ve got to work on not speaking as fast when I get up there. I mean, I don’t think the nerves ever go away. It’s just something you learn to overcome.”

Jonathan Allen’s disruptive and dominant play is a major factor in an increasingly promising Commanders season. Before the game or after it, his words — passionate, genuine words — matter almost as much.