Mike Shanahan and realistic expectations

Rex Ryan annually predicts his team will win the Super Bowl when the rest of us can plainly see that it won't, and he's ripped for being bombastic and unrealistic. On Sunday, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says the rest of his 3-6 team's season will be about "playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come," and he's ripped for giving up on the season. Sometimes you wonder if there's any way these guys can win with these news conferences.

Shanahan was being realistic Sunday. He'd called the game against the Panthers a "must-win" and his team had lost it. So he was asked what that meant -- the fact that they'd lost a must-win game. Taken literally, losing a must-win means you're cooked, and Shanahan's answer in the wake of the loss indicated that he believed as much. Only four teams in NFL history have reached the playoffs after starting 3-6. It's going to take something like a miracle for these Redskins to make it five.

When I spoke with Shanahan on Monday afternoon by phone, he attempted to explain what he'd meant. He insisted that he's not giving up on this season and that any insinuation to that effect was "completely ridiculous." He asked me if that was what I'd taken out of the quote when I heard it, and I told him that yes, it was, and that I'd therefore been surprised that he'd said it. I asked him if he felt the need to explain himself to his players and he offered a brave "we'll see," but I have to believe he'll do some form of damage control in the locker room given the way the quote has taken off down there in D.C.

"Every bye week, that's what you do -- you look at the scheme, the players, evaluate who you have and what you're doing," Shanahan told me. "When you have a little adversity, you're looking at your veteran players, too. You want to find out what they've got, who you want to have in a foxhole with you for years to come. But I never thought someone would say we're giving up on the season."

Sure sounded that way, though, and that's a no-no. In this era of instant gratification, no team or fan base wants to hear that it's in the middle of a long-range, future-focused project. Redskins fans are tired of hearing about "years to come." Heck, the Colts are a 5-3 playoff contender a year after finishing 2-14. Why, Redskins fans want to know, should they have to be patient when others do not? When will the work Shanahan's been doing to fix the roster he inherited three years ago start to pay off with actual on-field victories?

This is the line Shanahan walks, and the world in which he coaches the Redskins. He can sit there and look at a defense that's playing without four starters, an offense that's missing its top two passing-game targets and conclude that there's only so much that can be done. He can project ahead to next offseason and work out in his head whether the draft and free-agent options he'll have at safety, cornerback, tackle and guard are better than what he has now. He can, if he decides it's what's best for the franchise, coach the rest of the season as a seven-game audition for 2013 roster spots.

The mistake he made was in saying something out loud, in public, that indicated there was anything more important in this crazed, week-to-week NFL than the almighty Right Now. Shanahan's task may be to keep the long view in mind, but outwardly, in this day and age, he's not allowed to tell anyone that's where his mind is. The fan base doesn't want to hear it and, quite frankly, the players who just beat themselves up for three hours in an unsuccessful attempt to beat the Panthers don't deserve to hear it. Shanahan's job is to sell, in his locker room, the possibility of that miracle to which I referred -- the fact of five division games still on the schedule in a division that required only nine victories to win last year. To highlight those four teams that went from 3-6 to the playoffs and not dwell on how many, many more there were that did not.

That's why he's probably going to say something to his team about this the next time he stands in front of them, and that's why he was in damage-control mode today. I'm not enough of a fool to believe he returned my call because it had been a while since we'd talked and he wondered how I was doing. He read the columns in Washington this morning ripping him for giving up. They made him angry, and he wanted to explain himself. And as reasonable as what he said Sunday may have been, it was a good idea to try Monday to smooth it over. Because one thing you learn when you write about this league is this: You can be as realistic as you want about a team's reasonable expectations, but very few people want to hear it.