Mike Shanahan shook hands with the opposing coach Sunday afternoon, gracious in defeat. He put his left hand in his front pocket and began a lonely walk to the locker room. A 60-yard stretch of solitude was an opportunity to contemplate the bleak state of the Washington Redskins. Shanahan stared up into the stands with a steadfast scowl. He spoke no words.
His team, his program, continues to lose. On Sunday, the Redskins lost 21-13 to a Carolina Panthers team that came to town with one victory and a five-game losing streak. Shanahan called this a "must-win" six days earlier. Now the Redskins enter the bye week at 3-6 and freefalling.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. In the third year of Shanahan's tenure, he thought he had assembled a strong supporting cast around a budding star quarterback. After two straight last-place finishes, expectations included respectability and relevance. Instead, the postgame conversation — with seven games remaining, mind you — centered on evaluating for next season.
"Obviously very disappointing," 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. Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at. Obviously, we're not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season."
Shanahan's candor was a bit surprising for a man who characteristically concedes nothing. His words, however, rang true. Several key players are injured on both sides of the ball, and to this point the team has found no solution to overcoming those losses.
The Redskins repeated their typical mistakes in Sunday's game. They failed to score a touchdown on their first two drives inside Carolina's 20-yard line. Their offense converted only 3 of 15 third downs. They committed 13 penalties for 97 yards. And the defense surrendered an 82-yard pass that set up the decisive touchdown in the fourth quarter.
In other words, things aren't improving. And considering the once-prolific offense failed to score at least two touchdowns for the second straight game, the bottom might not be in sight.
In spite of the concrete reasons for despair, though, several players seemed surprised to hear Shanahan's thoughts about looking ahead to next season. They vowed to dig in.
"When you get down, you need to find out who's willing to fight and who's just in it for the paycheck," guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. "I think that's probably more what he's talking about. I'm not sitting here saying our season is over and we're just going to treat this like an evaluation for next year. I think we still have a lot to fight for, and there's a lot of pride on the line, too."
The threads that held together Washington's defeat Sunday were familiar. The details were painful, too.
The Panthers went ahead 7-3 on their second possession and never relinquished the lead. They gave the Redskins a taste of their own medicine, amassing 50 of 69 yards on the drive on three zone-read runs. DeAngelo Williams' 30-yard touchdown run was one of them.
Linebacker Perry Riley believed he could have pushed Williams out of bounds at the 12-yard line, but he pulled up because he heard the whistle blow. Referee Carl Cheffers conceded after the game that there was an inadvertent whistle, but the referees gathered and ruled Williams was in the end zone when the whistle blew. The television replay proved Williams wasn't even close.
The Redskins drove to Carolina's 2-yard line on the ensuing possession. They went for it on fourth-and-goal, but the Panthers tackled quarterback Robert Griffin III for no gain.
The play, basically a quarterback sweep to the right, was doomed from the start because Carolina overloaded the front side. The Redskins, who had one timeout left with 5:21 left in the first half, ideally would have gotten out of that play, tight end Logan Paulsen said.
"They had numbers but based on our formation and our personnel I think we were kind of stuck with it," Paulsen said.
Shanahan explained his thinking in going for it. If the defense held, the Redskins would regain possession with great field position. "I really believe it's a mindset of your team that you're not afraid to go for it," he said.
The problem is that the Redskins defense has broken down way more often than it has stood up. And when Carolina drove 98 yards for a touchdown before halftime, it was clear the Redskins ship is taking on water.
Now they have a week off to suffer this stench and to ponder their direction.
"Very disappointed right now, very emotional right now, just as everybody would be," Shanahan said. "You go back and look at who made mistakes and what we need to do as a staff to improve to make sure we eliminate some of those mistakes."
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