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Teddy Bridgewater, Cam Newton and the rarity of black QB swaps

A list of the 10 instances when a black quarterback replaced a black starter


When former New Orleans Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater signed with the Carolina Panthers on March 17, it marked not only the end of the Cam Newton era in Carolina — Newton is expected to be released — but also one of the rarities in NFL history: a black quarterback replacing another black quarterback.

Throughout the league’s 100-year history, there have been hundreds of instances of teams moving on from their starting quarterback and bringing in new blood hoping to revitalize the franchise. But of those hundreds of roster moves, Bridgewater replacing Newton marks just the 10th time that a black starter was succeeded by another black quarterback.

There are myriad reasons that this phenomenon is so rare. To start, a black starting quarterback is a rarity. Of the approximately 200 quarterbacks in NFL history who have started at least 12 games in at least two separate seasons, only 31 have been African American (Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson, both full-time starters in 2019, were not counted). Despite last season being an inauguration of black backups, just seven (Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor, Dwayne Haskins, Brett Hundley, Robert Griffin III, Geno Smith, Josh Johnson) began the 2019 season as their respective teams’ presumptive No. 2. There’s also the underlying racial belief – also present in the head coaching ranks – that once a black person fails in a leadership role, it makes it that much harder for an entity to trust another black person in that same role.

Below are the instances of a black quarterback replacing a black starter and the circumstances that led to that switch.

1994-95: Randall Cunningham-Rodney Peete (Philadelphia Eagles)

Philadelphia Eagle Rodney Peete (left) started as a fill-in for Randall Cunningham (right) before replacing him in 1995.

A torn ACL during the 1991 season started the athletic decline of Randall Cunningham, who was the team’s unvarnished offensive star after being selected 37th overall in the 1985 draft. Over Cunningham’s final nine starts for the Philadelphia Eagles (parts of the 1994 and 1995 seasons), the team won just one game.

In 1995, seventh-year quarterback Rodney Peete, who had spent time with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, filled in before eventually supplanting Cunningham as a starter for the remainder of the season. Cunningham would go on to retire for a year after being released, and Peete started just 12 games over the next three seasons before being traded to the Washington Redskins in 1999.

1999-2000: Jeff Blake-Akili Smith (Cincinnati Bengals)

Jeff Blake, the first black quarterback to ever start for the Cincinnati Bengals, enjoyed five seasons as the team’s starter before an 0-4 start to the 1999 season got him pulled to shepherd in rookie, and No. 3 overall pick, Akili Smith. That arrangement was short-lived, as Smith – one of the most notorious draft busts in league history – threw just two touchdowns over his first four starts, leading to Blake finishing the season.

That offseason, Blake signed with the New Orleans Saints. Smith lasted as the Bengals’ starter until he was benched for backup Scott Mitchell that November.

2000-01: Jeff Blake-Aaron Brooks (New Orleans Saints)

The following season, Blake became the first black quarterback to start for the New Orleans Saints, helping lead the team to a 7-4 record before a broken foot knocked him out for the rest of the season. Surprisingly, a little-known backup named Aaron Brooks, who had been brought over from the Green Bay Packers the previous offseason, took the reins and led the Saints to their first playoff victory in franchise history. In 2002, Blake was released, and Brooks would remain the team’s starter until 2005.

2005-06: Steve McNair-Vince Young (Tennessee Titans)

Ravens quarterback Steve McNair (left) and Titans rookie quarterback Vince Young (right) shake hands after a game at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov. 12, 2006.

Joe Murphy/NFLPhotoLibrary

Just a few seasons removed from a Super Bowl berth and a subsequent MVP award, Steve McNair, who spent nine years in Nashville, Tennessee, was first barred from the team’s facilities and then eventually traded to the Baltimore Ravens in June 2006. Two months before, the Tennessee Titans had drafted former University of Texas quarterback Vince Young No. 3 overall. Young spent the following 4½ seasons as the Titans’ starter, which included one playoff run.

2006-07: Byron Leftwich-David Garrard (Jacksonville Jaguars)

David Garrard was actually the first of the two quarterbacks to start a game for the Jacksonville Jaguars, filling in for starter Mark Brunell for the final game of a losing 2002 season. That spring, the Jaguars drafted Byron Leftwich seventh overall and handed him the team three games into the 2003 season. Leftwich would become a health risk, never appearing in more than 14 games over the next four years. Ahead of 2007, Garrard won the starting job, a position he would hold for four seasons, and Leftwich was released.

2009-10: Jason Campbell-Donovan McNabb (Washington Redskins)

Jason Campbell was a respectable starter for the Washington Redskins for four seasons after being drafted 25th overall in 2005, but the team never had a winning year and won just four games in his final season in 2009. That offseason, after being pushed out from his former team, longtime Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was traded to the Redskins to replace Campbell. McNabb lasted just one season in the nation’s capital, getting benched twice over 13 games before being dealt to the Minnesota Vikings.

2010-11: JaMarcus Russell-Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders)

Despite being drafted No. 1 overall in the 2007 draft, JaMarcus Russell never lived up to his immense hype and potential, accounting for just seven victories in his 25 starts over three seasons. The former LSU quarterback was finally released in May 2010, just a few weeks after the Oakland Raiders traded for Washington’s Campbell.

Following a 4-2 start to the 2011 season, Campbell broke his collarbone and the team traded for disgruntled Bengals starter Carson Palmer. Campbell left in free agency the following spring.

2011-12: Tarvaris Jackson-Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (left) and backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (right) stretch before an NFL game on Nov. 9, 2014, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

After letting longtime starter Matt Hasselbeck walk in free agency in July 2011, the Seattle Seahawks immediately signed Tarvaris Jackson, the Vikings’ backup for five seasons, to be their starter in 2011. After a 7-9 playoff season, the Seahawks signed hotshot free agent Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract to compete for the starting gig. But that spring, the team also plucked Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round of the NFL draft. Wilson went on to beat out Flynn for the starting job that offseason and Jackson served as Wilson’s backup for three seasons.

2017-18: DeShone Kizer-Tyrod Taylor (Cleveland Browns)

Tyrod Taylor was acquired from the Buffalo Bills ahead of the 2018 NFL draft as a young bridge quarterback for eventual No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. DeShone Kizer, a second-round selection by Cleveland a season before, started 15 games in 2017 before being shipped to the Green Bay Packers the same day Taylor was acquired. Taylor would start only three games before an injury led to Mayfield taking over for good.

2019-20: Cam Newton-Teddy Bridgewater (Carolina Panthers)

Newton has done virtually everything a quarterback can do for a team. The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner led the team to four playoff berths, including the Super Bowl in 2015, and won the MVP award the same season. Injuries began to break down Superman’s body over the next four years, leading to the team putting Newton on the trading block this offseason.

Bridgewater, a former starter for the Vikings, spent two seasons as the Saints’ backup, guiding the team to a 5-0 record during a stretch when starter Drew Brees was injured. A free agent this offseason, Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million deal with Carolina, ending Newton’s tenure.

Honorable mention

2009-10 Donovan McNabb-Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles)

After 11 seasons, including five trips to the NFC Championship Game and one Super Bowl appearance, McNabb was traded to the rival Washington Redskins in April 2010, paving the way for fourth-year quarterback Kevin Kolb to take over. But Kolb suffered a concussion in Week 1 of the 2010 season and never regained his starting job back from Michael Vick.

Liner Notes

ESPN Stats & Info contributed to this story.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"