Mike Shanahan billed Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers as a must win. After losing 21-13, what happens now?
In a decidedly somber (and mostly empty) dressing room, Redskins players spoke in low tones, expressing their frustrations while also trying to grasp onto some semblance of hope in a season that's suddenly gone awry.
All of which was a result of losing a game Shanahan billed as a "must-win" scenario. With the loss, not only did the Redskins drop their record to a harrowing 3-6 record, but even the coach himself is willing to change the narrative of the rest of the season.
"A must-win game is a game that gives you a chance to play for a playoff spot," Shanahan said. "When you lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come."
Shanahan's statement was one that was viewed as a concession of the season, but highlighted a harsh truth: Barring a long winning streak, the Redskins may have to start thinking about 2013, a frustrating thought to players who say they aren't ready to throw in the towel just yet.
"I'm just not giving up," said left tackle Trent Williams. "I'm a competitor. I'm going to compete until they say it's no way that [we] can make the playoffs."
"Season ain't over yet," added fullback Darrel Young. "We're 3-6, but we start a new season when we come back from this bye week."
Though they can theoretically go on a run, the Redskins' myriad of issues still won't go away, and were again on display Sunday. They continued to struggle on defense, allowing Carolina to score on two drives of 90 or more yards. They continued their trend of being the NFL's most penalized team, amassing 13 for a total of 97 yards. And Robert Griffin III and the offense weren't able to cash in on opportunities as they once did earlier in the season.
But what's most concerning for this team is that the loss appeared to signal more than just one bad game, or even a potentially bad season. Performances like Sunday's raises concerns about the long-term outlook of Shanahan's coaching tenure in Washington, a program that has yet to show progress in the win column in its third year.
"[In a] third year of a program, third year of a head coach, you would like to see the team starting to settle," said defensive captain London Fletcher. "I think in our situation, this is the first year we have actually had a quarterback for the most part. That definitely makes a difference."
But while veterans understand the need for evaluation and development, they still have a difficult time conceding their desire to win now.
"We don't play this game to finish last every year," said Lorenzo Alexander. "It gets very disappointing and frustrating that you can't break out of that funk or whatever we have as an organization when we can't come out and compete. We have talent, it's just that we don't put it together consistently enough to go out and compete with teams and play at a high level."
In recent weeks, fans and media have debated among themselves as to whether the team's struggles begin with the coaching staff or with the on-field execution from the players. But after Sunday's loss, it seems the focus will shift squarely towards Shanahan, a coach who was hired to help rebuild the Redskins and return them to their championship pedigree of decades past.
Now, his coaching tenure has reached a critical point, one where fans are having a difficult time differentiating between typical growing pains and signs of perpetual mediocrity. With seven games left, Shanahan will have to prove that his vision of a championship contender in Washington is closer to reality than what Redskins fans have seen the last two and a half seasons.
"Obviously, I can do a better job because we didn't [play well] today," Shanahan said. "I take full responsibility for that."