The Impact of Daryl Washington's Suspension: The Arizona Cardinals Won't Be the Same

One of the best defenses in 2013 loses one of its best players for all of 2014. What can we expect from the Cardinals without their best linebacker?

Football is a team sport.

Sometimes it's important to remind ourselves that 40-ish guys take to the field for every team each Sunday, and that any one player can only make as much of a positive impact as his teammates allow. Even when considering our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric here at numberFire, we have to account for the fact that no one player does everything on his own.

Some players come close, though. Some players have such a huge impact on the game that they make a dent in our metrics all on their own. Peyton Manning's precision bolstered the Passing NEP in Denver. Chip Kelly's offense opened up the door for LeSean McCoy to post incredible numbers across the board, and set a new standard for high-volume running backs in 2013. Josh Gordon posted some of the best NEP numbers at receiver, despite playing with nothing but below-average talent at quarterback last year.

These players are the definition of elite. They do their job better than anyone else at their position, and make a quantifiable impact on the game. But in the case of Gordon, his behavior off the field is going to restrict his ability to contribute on the field. And this same loss will be felt in Arizona this year with the suspension of Daryl Washington.

According to USA Today, Arizona GM Steve Keim said of Washington's suspension, "It's completely unacceptable that Daryl has once again put us in this position." Keim is absolutely right. There's no excuse for one of the best linebackers in the game to hurt his team by being away from the field.

So just how much will the Cardinals miss Washington? A quick look at our metrics tells us almost everything we need to know.

For the next two tables, I'll be using Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points, which account for strength of schedule when determining the NEP gained and lost by team defenses.

Adj. Def NEPAdj. Passing NEPAdj. Rushing NEP

This is the Arizona defense last season with Daryl Washington in the lineup. The team played six points above expectation, limiting their competition to six fewer points than what should have been scored. Projected out over 16 games, it would have been the second-best defense in the NFL overall, three spots ahead of the Cardinals actual fifth place ranking. But of course, this sample wasn't 16 games, as the Cardinals spent the first four weeks of the season without Washington due to another suspension.

This is what the defense looked like over the course of those games.


Projected out over 16 games, this defense would have finished 24th in our overall rankings, with a passing defense which would have ranked dead last in the entire league.

In his first game back from suspension, against Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers, Washington picked up two sacks and eight tackles as the team posted their best single-game performance of the season using Adjusted Defensive NEP. In Week 1, on the other hand, the Washington-less Cardinals posted one of their worst pass defense performances against Sam Bradford and the mediocre passing attack in St. Louis.

There's an even better way to quantify Washington's impact, and that's by using data from our friends over at Advanced Football Analytics. According to their Expected Points Added per game metric, which measures the positive impact of a defensive player on a per-game basis, Washington finished 11th among linebackers. This is thanks to ranking high in both quarterback hits and passes defensed, meaning Washington was disrupting the passing attack of his opponents in multiple ways.

There's talent to be found in Arizona on defense, but a lot of it is in the back four, where lockdown corner Patrick Peterson and dynamic playmaker Tyrann Mathieu play. Washington and Calais Campbell represent the playmaking ability in the front seven, and without Washington there to fill gaps and blitz, Campbell is going to have to shoulder even more of the burden to get quarterbacks off their mark and frustrate offensive coordinators.

The Arizona defense was more than five expected points worse against the pass last season in every game where Daryl Washington wasn't in the lineup. And while one of the four games played without Washington was against Drew Brees and the Saints, the others were against Mike Glennon's awful Bucs' offense, Matt Stafford's Lions and the aforementioned Rams.

So it's a small sample size, yes. But the numbers show that, against some less-than-stellar opposition, the Cardinals showed a weakness against the pass without their best inside linebacker in the lineup. Going without him in 2014 will likely mean more of the same, which is disappointing for those of us with high hopes for what a full season would look like with the additions made in Arizona already this offseason.

Football is a team sport. But certain players rise above that, and change games on their own. Washington is one of those players, but his impact will only been seen and felt in omission this season. As Steve Keim said, it's unacceptable, and it's really disappointing.