The Arizona Cardinals' uphill battle to compete in the NFC West next season grew even more daunting on Wednesday, when the NFL announced a four-game suspension for starting linebacker Daryl Washington for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Washington will be allowed to participate in all of the Cardinals' offseason workout programs and preseason games, but he will have to sit out games one through four of the 2013 season.
A 2012 Pro Bowler, Washington led the Cardinals in tackles (134) and sacks (9.0), while providing an extremely reliable presence in the heart of their defense. Without him, Arizona will be left to pick a starter from an unimpressive group of backups.
"I was always taught that when you make a mistake, you admit it, learn from it and face whatever consequences there are," Washington said in a statement released by the team. "I take full responsibility and I understand that I let down my teammates, the organization and fans. I apologize for that and promise that no one will work harder to make up for it."
The Cardinals did sign free agents Lorenzo Alexander and Jasper Brinkley this offseason, in hopes of improving a linebacking corps that was central to the fifth-worst run defense in the league. Alexander, a noted special-teams dynamo, may wind up starting alongside Brinkley at inside linebacker in Arizona's 3-4, with O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho getting the nods outside.
Regardless of how new Arizona coach Bruce Arians (and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) opts to configure the D for those opening few weeks, Washington's loss will be felt. The 26-year-old rising defensive star finished 2012 with rated as Arizona's No. 3 defender on Pro Football Focus, behind only Calais Campbell and Kerry Rhodes.
The Cardinals lost Rhodes in free agency this offseason, replacing him with Yeremiah Bell. Even if Bell fills in nicely, that trade-off still leaves Arizona down two of its defensive leaders from last season. This was a blow that the rebuilding Cardinals did not need, especially given how badly they'll need to start the season off well if they want to hang around the race for a bit.