The Arizona Cardinals didn't make the playoffs in 2013, but with 10 wins, the Redbirds were still one of the league's more surprising teams.
However, the Cardinals are at risk of losing that momentum, as the defense that created it is facing a number of serious questions.
The latest is in the middle of the defense. As the Maricopa County Superior Court tweeted, sentencing was handed down to Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington, who pleaded guilty in March to assaulting his girlfriend last year:
According to , an of USA TodayNFL spokesperson said Washington's case is "under review."
It's not out of the realm of reason to assume that a league-mandated vacation is on the way, especially given that Washington was suspended just last year for a substance abuse violation.
It may be a lengthy suspension too.
While Washington's charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor if he successfully completes probation, it's currently "undesignated."
Washington's attorney conceded the NFL may view that as a felony, and a felony conviction—in the league's eyes—is going to cost Washington at least four more games.
That's the last thing the Cardinals need right now.
After all, the Cardinals already lost Karlos Dansby, who departed for a big payday in Cleveland after one reunion season in the desert.
Dansby tallied 122 tackles and 6.5 sacks, finished 2013 as the fifth-ranked inside linebacker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and was a huge part of the Cardinals leading the NFL in run defense.
Now, instead of Washington and Dansby to open the season, the Cardinals are looking at second-year pro Kevin Minter and a tomato can for at least a month.
That isn't good. It also isn't their only problem.
Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic reports that defensive back of all trades Tyrann Mathieu, who went from third-round risk to rookie revelation to injured reserve in 2013, will likely open camp on the Physically Unable to Perform List.
"I think Ty is going to up to the wire," coach Bruce Arians said. "I still anticipate him on PUP, but he refuses to believe it. That's a good thing."
Mind you, Mathieu's rehab from an ACL tear is reportedly progressing on schedule and the hope remains that the "Honey Badger" will be prowling the back of the Arizona defense when it faces the San Diego Chargers in Week 1.
However, it's also fair to assume that Mathieu may not be 100 percent at the beginning of the season. Also, the safety spot next to him on the depth chart is a huge question mark right now.
In other words, the middle of the defense—on both the second level and the back end—is uncertain at best and a mess at worst right now, at least where the month of September is concerned.
In the NFC West, that's most certainly bad juju.
For starters, the West isn't a football division. It's a fistfight masquerading as one. A large part of the reason that the Cardinals made the headway they did in 2013 was that they fielded a defense capable of giving as good as they got against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
Even then, the Cardinals were 1-3 against those teams last year and 2-4 in the division overall.
There's just no margin for error in that division.
This year, in addition to a brutal December that includes games against the Seahawks and 49ers, the Cardinals have a pretty daunting slate coming out of the gate.
|Arizona Cardinals Early Schedule 2014|
|1||vs. San Diego Chargers||9-7|
|2||at New York Giants||7-9|
|3||vs. San Francisco 49ers||12-4|
|5||at Denver Broncos||13-3|
|Combined Record: 41-23|
Three of the Cardinals' first four opponents—the teams Arizona will likely face without Washington—advanced to the playoffs last year. Those teams had a winning percentage of .640 in 2013.
If the Cardinals come out flat and do any less than split those four games, any chance they had of winning the NFC West will go out the window, leaving the Cardinals in another uphill chase for a wild-card spot.
How'd that work out last year? With that December schedule, which features an opponents' winning percentage of .672, how do you think it will in 2014?
This isn't to say that the sky is falling. The draft has yet to come. Washington hasn't been officially suspended (yet). Mathieu could become the latest young football player to come back sooner than expected from an ACL tear and play well. Minter could take the next step as a pro in his second year.
However, those are an awful lot of ifs and maybes facing a defense that was supposed to be the strength of the Cardinals in 2014—especially in the buzzsaw that is the NFC West.
It's awfully early to be chipping away at that margin for error.