Mike Shanahan was in denial, and that ended the Washington Redskins' season.

The coach should have removed quarterback Robert Griffin III after he obviously tweaked his knee in the first quarter with Washington ahead by two touchdowns. Griffin said he was fine -- players always do -- but he was ineffective afterward. Then he found himself lying in the dirt when his knee buckled in the fourth quarter.

Seattle eliminated Washington 24-14 on Sunday at FedEx Field in the opening round of the NFC playoffs. Fans now will debate until September whether Shanahan made the right call or kept Griffin too long. Could backup passer Kirk Cousins have won in relief?

Ultimately, Shanahan believed what he wanted -- that Griffin was OK. The rookie wasn't. Don't blame Griffin. It really isn't a player's decision. A coach should have the experience to know when a player can't produce. Shanahan opted to believe Griffin could recover.

It's the playoffs after all. Win or go home. Shanahan spent three years resurrecting an awful franchise, and he didn't want to admit even to himself that Griffin was hurt and the team's chances were diminishing with every possession.

"Trust me," Shanahan said Griffin told him.

Sorry, trust doesn't work here. The Nationals didn't trust Stephen Strasburg to stay healthy in the waning weeks of the season. Keeping the star pitcher active might have propelled Washington to the World Series. General manager Mike Rizzo made the tough call to sit Strasburg and maybe cost the Nats a title, but it also kept Strasburg from reinjuring his arm.

"You kinda got to go with your gut," Shanahan said. "I did. I'm not saying my gut's always right, but I've been there before."

Shanahan should have bit his lip and made the tough decision. Sure, the Redskins led 14-0, and the doctors didn't say Griffin had to come out. It was easier to keep going with the rookie. Shanahan took a chance -- a big chance -- that Griffin could win the game, that he could still produce and avoid a more serious injury.

It backfired -- maybe big time. Even Griffin was unsure after the game whether his ACL was torn, which would require surgery and at least six months of rehab.

Griffin has been everything to this team as it won the NFC East title. But he wasn't the same in the final month after he hurt his knee against Baltimore. When it became apparent that Griffin's throws weren't the same in the second quarter against Seattle, Shanahan should have been more realistic. He should have kept close watch in the third quarter and perhaps made a quick change. He just didn't want to do it.

"I thought [Griffin] did enough for us this year to have that opportunity to stay in the football game," Shanahan said. "It's always a tough decision. ...

"Everybody could see after the first quarter he wasn't exactly the same, but I've got a lot of players that aren't exactly the same."

And a lot of players who will collect their possessions at Redskins Park on Monday and head into the offseason. Maybe Cousins could have extended the playoff run.

Shanahan admits he will second-guess himself when he watches the game tape. Maybe then he will be honest with himself in the quiet film room -- away from an adrenaline-filled sideline -- and know the ending could have been different had he changed quarterbacks.

We will never know.

Examiner columnist Rick Snider has covered local sports since 1978. Read more on Twitter @Snide_Remarks or email rsnider@washingtonexaminer.com.