TEMPE, Ariz. -- Once Daryl Washington steps on the practice field Wednesday, there’s no turning back.
The linebacker needs to be at full speed as quickly as possible with Carolina QB Cam Newton coming to town.
After serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, Washington’s return to the Arizona Cardinals this week won’t be handled with white gloves. There won’t be an acclimation period. He won’t be given the luxury of easing his way back into the lineup.
In fact, it’ll be quite the opposite.
Washington will be thrown into the starting lineup Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Arizona coach Bruce Arians said technically Washington hasn't been reinstated yet, a process that happens when the Cardinals add him to the 53-man roster. As of Tuesday night, that move had yet to be announced.
“There’s no time. It’s full go,” Arians said Tuesday night on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “He’s got 12 games to make it up for us.”
The part of the transition back into football that could give Washington problems is actually playing. Because of new NFL rules, he was allowed to be at the team facility -- where he worked out like a “fiend,” according to Arians -- and he attended team meetings. He was part of the game-planning process for all four games, and Arizona even brought him to Florida for the week in between playing at New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Washington wasn’t allowed to practice or play, but mentally Washington has been on the same page with his teammates all season. That's a good thing, because the playbook shrinks for each specific week. Less to process helps Washington get caught up even faster.
And because of his workouts, which he compared to preparing for the NFL scouting combine, he’s in shape. But he still needs to strap on the pads and hit someone, which he hasn’t done since the last preseason game, Aug. 29.
“I think Wednesday will define how the week goes for me,” Washington said.
“It’s been a long four weeks of training Monday through Saturday. Hopefully I’m not too tight, my muscles are loose, and I can go out there and run around and make plays.”
Washington thinks it’ll take him a series or two to get his football legs back. It may need to be faster.
With Newton coming to University of Phoenix Stadium, Washington’s speed may come in handy. The Cardinals have been able to manage without it, going 2-2 during his suspension. But in the two games Arizona lost, Washington could’ve been the difference. Against St. Louis, tight end Jared Cook abused mismatches, and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham did the same two weekends ago, taking advantage of smaller, slower linebackers and defensive backs.
Washington, at 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, can run and hit with the likes of Cook and Graham. But all he could do was watch, and he couldn’t even do that live. For the first time in his four-year NFL career, he wasn’t in the stadium for a Cardinals’ kickoff. While he sat at home, he couldn’t bear to flip on the game. He recorded the games and watched them later, filling his time with the slate of other games around the league.
He saw how much the Cardinals missed him in those games, just like everybody else.
“I can cover the tight ends down the seam and match up pretty well down the seams and all over the field,” Washington said. “In that aspect, yeah [the Cardinals missed him]. Only my addition will probably help instead of hurt.”
Indeed, it’ll help, and not just in specific matchups. Last week, cornerback Patrick Peterson hinted that the Cardinals will be more aggressive on defense when Washington returns. Simply because they were missing his athleticism, they weren’t able crack open parts of their playbook.
Now that he’s back, Arizona can dust off the schemes that feature Washington.
“I think we can do some more things that we haven’t been doing to protect some guys as far as what he can do in coverage,” Arians said. “The people he can cover might allow you to do some different things in different packages.”
Whatever Arians asks of Washington this week, the Pro Bowler will do.
Despite the possibility of more suspensions looming next season, Washington is happy to be back on the field and not sitting on his couch, watching the red record button stare back at him.
“I’m excited, but I just don’t want to be too anxious to play because I love the game of football,” Washington said. “I want to be able to go out there and do what I do -- nothing more and nothing less -- just go out there and play my game and hopefully get a win.”