by David Elfin

Well, then. Just one game past the halfway point of his third season in Washington and Mike Shanahan has thrown in the proverbial towel.

To be fair, Shanahan, now 14-27 with the Redskins compared to 146-91 during his 14 seasons with the Broncos, is only catching up to yours truly and the rest of us clear-eyed types who have maintained all along that this season is all about Robert Griffin III’s development.

The playoffs weren’t a realistic goal with a rookie quarterback, especially with a difficult post-bye week schedule compounded by the loss of seven expected starters – receiver Pierre Garcon, tight end Fred Davis, right tackle Jammal Brown, defensive end Adam Carriker, two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson — for all or most of the season

But to hear Shanahan declare at the end of Week 9 that his players are already playing for next year was jarring, to say the least.

“Obviously very disappointing,” Shanahan said after the Redskins lost 21-13 to the visiting Carolina Panthers Sunday in what he had called a must-win game. “Must-win games give you a chance to play for a playoff spot. When you’re 3-5, it’s gotta be a must-win to get in the hunt. You lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who’s going to be on your football team for years to come. Now I get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously we’re not out of it statistically. Now we find out what kind of character we’ve got.”

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Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, who played for Shanahan in Denver in 2008 before signing with Washington shortly after he was hired in 2010, said his coach wasn’t exactly giving up on this season.

“What he’s talking about is when you get down, you need to find out who’s willing to fight and who’s just in it for the paycheck,” Lichtensteiger said.

However, some of Lichtensteiger’s teammates were surprised to hear that it’s already 2013 at Redskins Park although they’ve been outscored 55-25 since they led the defending champion Super Bowl Giants with 92 seconds left at New York on Oct. 21. Holding on would have put the Redskins on top of the NFC East at 4-3. Instead, two weeks later, they’re back in their customary spot in the basement with the rematch with the Giants, two games each against division rivals Dallas and Philadelphia, and a contest against AFC North frontrunner Baltimore to come during the final seven weeks.

“Until we’re mathematically out of it, we always got a chance,” said cornerback Josh Wilson, who was burned, along with free safety Madieu Williams, on the 77-yard bomb that beat Washington with 73 seconds left in Week 7. “We go on a streak, win these last games, go 10-6 with five games left in the division …”

Barry Cofield wasn’t so brazen. In fact, the seventh-year nose tackle is concerned about what might happen during this week’s bye.

“I’ve been in this league long enough to know that you should never feel comfortable, especially going into a bye,” Cofield said. “A lot of changes have a tendency to be made during that time. We never had a lead in the division. We were never that. We never had a win streak going. So to think that guys were comfortable and feeling good about themselves, I’m not sure why that would be the case.”

Griffin, whose declining statistics mirror his team’s dropoff, agreed that the Redskins’ three-game skid is on the players, not the coaches, including much-criticized defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who might be a more than little nervous with former Tampa Bay head coach/coordinator Raheem Morris and ex-Shanahan coordinator Bob Slowik as two of his assistants. If owner Dan Snyder wants a head to roll now, it figures to be Haslett’s.

“People are gonna criticize the coaches,” Griffin said. “They’re gonna say a drastic change needs to be made. I don’t feel that way. I feel it’s on us. We’re the ones out there playing. We gotta make plays. … We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We’ll come back [after the bye] ready to go. I think you’ll see a different team.”

Maybe, but will that team have a different man in charge of one of the NFL’s worst defenses?

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin