Even with all five receivers back from a 2015 offense that amassed more than 4,000 yards through the air, the Arizona Cardinals had yet to come up with an answer to a confounding question through the first three weeks of the season.
Who is Arizona's No. 2 receiver?
In a 17-13 loss to the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, the Cardinals finally received an answer to the question, albeit in undesirable circumstances.
John Brown's 10 catch, 144-yard outing cemented his status as Arizona's secondary receiving threat behind future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, and gave Carson Palmer a security blanket he desperately needed against a physical Rams' defense.
Brown's crisp routes, sharp hands and elusiveness were practically nowhere to be found in the season's first three weeks, but the lingering effects of a concussion had cut his practice time short for much of training camp. Over the past two weeks, Brown finally worked his way back to full strength, and Sunday, the fruits of his labor appeared in a dominating effort.
Many Cardinals' fans assumed Brown was the team's No. 2 threat even though former first round draft choice Michael Floyd starts on the outside, plays more reps, and is playing in a contract year. Brown received favorable opinions because of a surprisingly productive 1,000-yard campaign in 2015, just his second season in the league.
While Floyd was given more opportunities than Brown to prove his worth at the beginning of the season, the Notre Dame product hardly ran away with them. In fact, on a second quarter touchdown drive that ironically finished with a Floyd touchdown catch Sunday, the changing of the guard for the 2016 season became official.
With under four minutes to play in the first half and the Cardinals trailing 10-3, Arizona found itself driving down the field looking to tie the game. Palmer had successfully targeted the perimeter of the Rams' defense on the drive, and he tried to do so once again when he looked for Floyd on an out route deep in Rams' territory near a first down marker.
A perfectly thrown ball went to waste, though, when Floyd dropped it, deflating the Cardinals' offense much like it did when Floyd dropped a pass on the opening series of last week's game against Buffalo. Before Arizona could get its next snap off, Floyd wasn't sure whether he needed to stay on the field, and caused head coach Bruce Arians to burn a critical timeout.
The play wouldn't haunt Arizona too much, as Floyd caught a pair of passes including a game-tying touchdown later in the drive, but Floyd's mental errors coupled with Brown's outstanding effort Sunday left little doubt in the minds of Arians and Palmer.
Even in situations that didn't make sense, like a pair of jump balls in the end zone, Palmer targeted the 5-foot-10 Brown because he was having his way with the Rams' cornerbacks. Brown out-produced Fitzgerald Sunday, but that's likely an aberration and a result of the Rams' intense focus on the Cardinals' No. 1 receiving threat.
There's no doubt Fitzgerald will remain Palmer's top option as long as the pair remains healthy (Palmer is initially doubtful for Thursday night), but Brown solidified a role he basically assumed in 2015 as Palmer's most reliable secondary target. Even though he has the size, the speed and the contract year to play for, Floyd dropped behind Brown on Sunday, and it won't be easy to climb past the determined Pittsburg State product anytime soon.