TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time the Arizona Cardinals had two receivers reach 1,000 yards in the same season, Kurt Warner was the quarterback with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin his main targets.
The year was 2009, and it was, incidentally, the last time the Cardinals won the NFC West.
What’s old is new again?
Entering Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cardinals are 11-2 and one victory away from clinching their division title. At the same time, receiver John Brown is at 895 receiving yards, putting him well within range of 1,000 on the season.
With Larry Fitzgerald already at 1,088, Brown could join him in the quadruple-digit club and, for the fifth time in franchise history, give the Cardinals two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.
“It means a lot, a thousand yards is big, especially being in the room with a whole bunch of playmakers,” Brown said. “It’s tough, it’s tough just getting to that thousand-yard mark with all the weapons we’ve got. So I’m just blessed to be up in the running to get a thousand yards.”
That Brown is on the verge of reaching that milestone should come as little surprise. Last season, as a rookie, he caught 48 passes for 696 yards and five scores, and most figured he would take another step forward this season. Some even felt he could become the team’s No. 1 target in the passing game.
While that has not necessarily been the case, Brown has proven to be more than just the deep threat many had him pegged as with 55 receptions, 895 yards and five touchdowns, with the damage he has inflicted coming all over the field. He’s still a deep threat, yes, but that’s not all he is.
“Smoke’s playing every down now; there’s nothing he can’t do as a receiver,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s catching the ball in the red zone. Catching the ball in third down, short yardage, everywhere else, but he can still take the top off. It’s nice for a second-year player to reach 1,000.
“Again, without his hamstring, he might have had 1,200.”
There is that.
The 5-foot-11, 179-pound Brown missed one game because of hamstring issues, and was limited in a few others. As his health has improved so have his numbers, as he has caught 15 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown over the Cardinals’ last three games.
And if his hamstring hadn’t held him back, the talent around him — as Brown alluded to — may have. Arizona’s offense has been constructed so that it does not have to feature any single player, rather the open receiver can get the ball and make plays with it.
Sometimes that’s Brown, often times it’s Fitzgerald. It has also been Michael Floyd, Darren Fells, J.J. Nelson or Jaron Brown. And then there’s the running game, too. It’s great for winning football games and terrible for fantasy football players.
Perhaps that’s why Carson Palmer, who is responsible for Brown’s — and every other receiver’s — yardage total, did not even realize how close he was to 1,000.
“Is he? That’s great,” he said. “He was so good last year. He’s gotten better, no doubt.
“But typically, a guy comes in first year and you see just huge jumps. Like in Michael Floyd, a couple years back. Smokey came in and was so good right away. There’s no doubt he’s gotten better, but he set a very, very high bar with the first year he had. It’s unfortunate.
“There are so many good receivers around him, or he’d already be at 1,000 if there weren’t. If there was no Larry and a Mike, and J.J.’s gotten his opportunities and you can go on down the list. I’m happy for Smoke. I expect him to get there. I hope he does. I expect him to continuously get better each year. He came in so mature and so prepared from such a small school. It blew everybody away. But, he’ll continue to get better.”
Palmer said a big part of Brown’s success comes from the fact that he has always been willing to put the time in to work and improve. He added the Pittsburg State product asks plenty of questions, and none of them are dumb.
“A lot of times, eight out of the 10 questions, you’re just kind of getting through it,” he said. “But, he asks questions all the time and they’re always really good questions. He’s just so intelligent. He’s probably the most professional young guy I’ve been around. This is his job. This is it and he’s dedicated to it.”
That’s how Brown, whose NFL.com scouting report said he, “will have to overcome size and strength limitations, but his burst and hands give him the opportunity to earn a role as a slot receiver and return man” can be more than that in just his second season.
A slot receiver? A return man? He’s become so much more.
“Learning from things that I didn’t know last year, doing those things, watching the things that I did, learning from Carson, Larry and those guys,” Brown said of what he’s done to grow his game. “You know as far as working on route running over and over all offseason and working on press coverage, getting stronger — the things that I wanted to work on, and I became better in. Doing the things that Larry does, catch balls before practice, after practice. I think those things help me out a lot.”
They certainly have.
Fitzgerald pointed to the fact that Brown limped through some games this season as something that has impressed him.
“It says a lot about him and his character, his toughness and his willingness to compete even when he’s not at his best,” he said. “And so, John is really special.”
Fitzgerald went on to note Brown’s performance against the Eagles last season, when his 75-yard touchdown reception in the final minutes proved to be the game-winner.
“That’s one that I’ll always remember, and I’m so glad he was on the field for that play,” he said. “But I think only things are going to get better for John as he gets more comfortable. He’s healthy now and I’m expecting real big things from him.”
Fitzgerald is not the only one with high expectations for Brown, as the receiver himself set some personal goals prior to the season, even if he understood then as he does now that some may be more difficult to achieve than others. Not that he’s complaining.
“Being around this group of players and stuff, it’s hard to reach those goals,” he said. “My goals were 1,200 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns. But you know, when you’ve got a great team none of that stuff matters.”
Some stories for pre-game reading
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Having faced it before, the Cardinals are ready for the Eagles’ up-tempo offense.
-With a win, the Cardinals would clinch the NFC West. With a win and a Green Bay loss to Oakland, the Cardinals would clinch the NFC West as well as one of the NFC’s top two seeds for the postseason.
-The Cardinals are already 4-0 in prime-time games this season, with wins over the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings. A win Sunday night would improve Arizona’s record to 7-2 in primetime games under Bruce Arians.
-The Cardinals need to score 23 points against the Eagles to establish a new franchise record for points in a season. The current mark of 427 was set in 2008.
-Larry Fitzgerald is four receptions away from 100 on the season, which would make him the ninth player in NFL history to record that many catches in at least three different seasons.
-Sticking with Fitzgerald, with eight catches he would establish a new franchise record for receptions in a season. The current record of 103 was set by Fitzgerald in 2005.
-Carson Palmer is two touchdown passes away from establishing a new career high for a season, and is 272 yards away from setting a new career high for passing yards.
-With one touchdown of any kind, David Johnson would tie the franchise single-season record for touchdowns by a rookie. Tim Hightower (2008) and Ottis Anderson (1979) established the mark.
-One sack Sunday would give Dwight Freeney five on the season, which would surpass his combined total from the previous two seasons in San Diego combined(4).
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