LANDOVER -- Just like that, everything changed. With Sunday's 35-18 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, the future is now for the Washington Redskins.
One minute the Redskins are dealing with the Packers' fast-paced offense helmed by Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's relentless pass rush. The next, the players and coaches are answering questions about the offseason, the future.
The loss at FedEx Field marks the last time this specific group of players is all on the same team. Many will be back. Keeping the core if not huge swaths of the roster intact make all the sense considering the season-long improvements for the eventual NFC East champions.
But not all, no, that won't happen. Some will leave in free agency. Some won't be asked back. Running back Alfred Morris and quarterback Robert Griffin III might land in one of those categories. Some free agents like Kirk Cousins are near locks for return. Others like Jason Hatcher might choose another path altogether.
No matter each individual's path, their future started Sunday night.
"It's an important thing when talking about the future," Washington's Jay Gruden said shortly after his first NFL playoff game as head coach. "This stings right now, but I think we're building something big here. We just have to keep our heads up."
As the hours and days pass, emotional pain for some will shift toward back of the mind while still accessible as needed for offseason motivation. Within the hour of their season, the hurt as front and center.
Left tackle Trent Williams sat shirtless, quiet and still in front of his locker, his head buried in his massive hands. Guard Spencer Long did his best at keeping emotions in check as spoke about all the team accomplished and the suddenness of the season's end. Members of the defensive line, playful throughout the season, dialed back the tone to match the somber room.
"We had a special group," said nose tackle Terrance Knighton, one of the key free agents this offseason. "We had a lot of veterans. A lot of young guys come in. I'm upset right now, but it doesn't take away from how hard we worked, the work we put in to get this far.
"But expectations should be championships. When that's the standard and we fall short, we should be upset. It should sting us the whole offseason. Hopefully I'm back next year to be part of the process."
Many expected little from the Redskins entering the season because of so much uncertainty at quarterback. Many picked Washington over Green Bay because of strides Cousins made at the position. Now the four-year veteran is in the position to test free agency. The Redskins have the power to place the franchise tag on the 27-year-old, who threw for 329 yards in his first playoff start.
"We made the playoffs, but we want to advance in the playoffs and we weren't that good to do that," Cousins said. "So what do have to change and what do we have to grow in [over] the next several months to be able to get back here and win. Hopefully it will challenge us as a young team to grow in that area. ...It's year-to-year, so we will see where we are at going into next year."
From the moment the Redskins selected Matt Jones in the 2015 Draft, this seemed like the last campaign for Morris in Washington. Though the valuable runner had key moments during the season and led the Redskins with 63 yards on 12 carries against Green Bay, the departure trajectory remains likely.
"I have no idea," Morris said about Sunday possibly being his last with the team that selected him in the sixth round in 2012. "I haven't gotten to that point yet."
Based on comments from Hatcher after the loss, it's clear the 34-year defensive lineman has pondered the next step plenty. Hatcher has two years remaining on his original four-year, $27.5 million contract he signed with Washington in 2014.
"You know, I've been thinking lately about this being my last year and retiring," Hatcher said in response to a question about a conversation he had walking off the field with McCloughan. "He said he wants me around. I still love the game. ... [McCloughan is] a great guy and I'm glad I met him. He believes in me as a leader, as a player, and it's hard not to come back. But at the same time, I've got to do what's best for me and my family."
The Redskins organization will do what it thinks is best going forward. McCloughan overhauled the roster plenty in his first season. The result, Washington's first playoff appearance since 2012.
Sunday marks the end of careers for some with the Redskins. For others, like rookie Preston Smith, it's only the beginning.
"I have to get better. Not at my own pace, but with a sense of urgency," said the pass rusher who sacked Rodgers for a safety in the first quarter. "I know my rookie year is done so I have to be a vet now in the locker room."
That's how professional football works. The young become the leaders as changes elsewhere take place. We'll find out in the coming weeks who is staying and who is going. With the season over, thoughts of the future start now.
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