TEMPE, AZ - Throughout his four-game suspension, Daryl Washington heard it from teammate Darnell Dockett.
"Man," Dockett would say, "we'd be 4-0 if we had you."
An exaggeration, maybe. But there's no doubt the Arizona Cardinals' good defense got a lot better when Washington, suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy, was back on the field last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
In Arizona's 22-6 victory, the fast, fierce inside linebacker had two sacks and an interception. He led the team with nine tackles, three for losses, with two quarterback hits.
"It's great to have a Pro Bowl player back," coach Bruce Arians said.
The Cardinals (3-2) learned through Washington's first two seasons how good the former TCU player could be. Three days before the 2012 season began, they signed him to a six-year contract worth up to $31 million. He went on to lead the team in tackles (140), sacks (9) and tackles for loss (14), earning his first Pro Bowl berth.
Then things turned sour.
In April, the NFL announced Washington's suspension. A month later, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and criminal trespass. Prosecutors accused him of grabbing his ex-girlfriend's throat and shoving her to the ground during an argument at her apartment. She is the mother of Washington's baby girl.
He wouldn't comment on the case, which is still in the courts. When it's resolved, Washington could face more punishment by the NFL, in addition to whatever criminal penalty he would receive if convicted.
He said he has returned as a better player and person, "being more responsible and making the right decisions -- always."
"I think that's the most important thing moving forward," Washington said. "Now I'm able to do that and put everything else behind me."
NFL rules now allow suspended players to attend team meetings and work out in the weight room. That kept Washington feeling a part of things.
"It really helped me more mentally," he said, "being able to be around the facility, being around the guys and laugh with them and see these guys prepare. It felt like I was preparing with them, just not playing on Sundays."
Outside linebacker John Abraham said the work Washington did in the weight room with strength coach John Lott during the suspension played a big role in the player's spectacular return.
"When we're in there working out, he's working out by himself," Abraham said. "Those four weeks, when we're at practice, he was running, doing things just to keep in shape."
Washington agonized while his teammates played.
"Sometimes you feel like you hurt your teammates not being out there," he said, "especially in a game where you know you can be effective and produce. That's what I wanted to do my first game being back. I was just excited to play and ready to play."
As the final days of the suspension wound down, Washington was more than ready.
"I could tell he was hungry," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "He couldn't wait to get back on the field. Someone that talented, he's going to make up for lost time. That's just his style, his personality. That's who he is.'
In that game, after a few stumbles at the very beginning, Washington turned it on, leading a harassing Arizona defense that sacked Cam Newton seven times and intercepted him on three occasions.
Washington makes others around him better. Fellow inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, for instance, had eight tackles, two sacks and an interception against Carolina.
"We were having fun out there," Dansby said with a smile. "Couldn't you tell?"
On Sunday, the Cardinals will be in San Francisco, where the 49ers present a much more formidable challenge and are all too familiar with Washington. In his last four games against San Francisco, Washington has three sacks and an interception.
Asked where Washington ranks at his position in the NFL, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "We've always thought he's right there at the top."
When he came out of college, Washington slipped to the second round because of concerns that, at 6-foot-2 and 258 pounds, he wasn't big enough to play inside linebacker in the pros. Those skeptics have long since been disproven.
"I've been around some very good inside linebackers in Pittsburgh and in Cleveland when I was up there," Arians said, "but his speed factor separates him from the other inside `backers. He has tremendous speed and quickness. He still likes to bring it, too. He's a thumper."
Washington is due to get a $10 million roster bonus next year, at the team's option. His immense talent would make it a no-brainer that the money would be paid -- except for those off-field issues.
The court case still hangs over him and could drag on past the end of the season. Any more trouble and the Cardinals might think he is not worth the risk.
Campbell vouched for his embattled teammate.
"From what I know, my experiences with him, he's an awesome guy," Campbell said. "He's fun to be around. He's the kind of guy you want to be around more often
because he's always making you laugh, just having fun and being light-hearted. That's the Daryl Washington I know. He's a great teammate and I hope we are teammates for a long time to come."