Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals had Carson Palmer (97 career starts) at quarterback and Terrell Owens (15,934 career receiving yards) and Chad Ochocinco (10,783 receiving yards) as the starting wide receivers and two leading receivers. Palmer is in a showdown over demanding a trade and will not be back in Cincinnati, Ochocinco was traded to New England, and Owens will be with another team as well if he recovers from his knee injury. They will be replaced by some combination of rookie Andy Dalton and gritty journeyman Bruce Gradkowski, with the likely starters at wide receivers being top rookie pick A.J. Green and Andre Caldwell, who started 5 games at the end of last year and has 855 receiving yards and an un-DeSean-like 9.8 yards per catch in 3 seasons as a reserve with the Bengals.
This got me wondering, how often do teams completely turn over their quarterback and starting wide receiver combinations from one season to the next? And where does this move from three veterans with a lengthy history in the league, to potentially two rookies and one receiver with less than 1,000 career receiving yards rank?
As it turns out, if we just limit it to cases where a franchise has a new quarterback and two new wide receivers who have never been the main starters for that same franchise (so cases like an unproven Caldwell being promoted from within the organization and moving into the starting lineup count as a new starter), it has happened 41 times since 1978, so a little more than once per season.
Of course, most of those aren’t similar at all to what the Bengals are doing. Most times, it is a team swapping out veteran free agents. For example, the Cardinals in 1995 brought in Dave Krieg at quarterback, and acquired Rob Moore from the Jets in addition to starting rookie receiver Frank Sanders, replacing Jay Schroeder and the combo of Rickey Proehl and Randal Hill at receiver.
Cincinnati fans, in fact, have already witnessed on such complete turnover, but may repress memories of a decade ago (2000), when the team went with Akili Smith, rookie 4th overall pick Peter Warrick, and Craig Yeast, in place of Blake, Pickens, and Scott (Scott was out for the season and returned in 2001).
If we are looking at situations where a team had a new quarterback and new receivers without much experience, the Detroit Lions in 1989 probably take that prize. Not only did they add Barry Sanders, but Rodney Peete started as a rookie, and the team went to a 4 wide receiver base lineup with the run-n-shoot. None of the receivers had ever started for the Lions before–Richard Johnson and Robert Clark had cups of coffee with the Redskins and Saints, respectively, Walter Stanley had started parts of 3 seasons with Green Bay, and Jason Phillips was a rookie.
The 1993 Patriots started Drew Bledsoe and Vincent Brisby as rookies, and also had an inexperienced Michael Timpson. Arizona in 2003 had a rookie receiving group in Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson, though they also brought in Jeff Blake to compete with Josh McCown. In 2002, Joey Harrington started as a rookie, and the Lions brought in two guys that were career 3rd receivers to that point, Az Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder, as the new starters at receiver.
At the other end of the spectrum, a few teams have lost multiple star veterans at the same time. The 2004 Raiders went from Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, to acquiring Kerry Collins, promoting 3rd receiver Jerry Porter, and also starting Doug Gabriel. The 1978 Redskins turned over the QB/WR combo, forcing Joe Theismann on the world and replacing Billy Kilmer and Hall of Famer Charlie Taylor. The 1988 Chargers went from Fouts, Wes Chandler, Lionel James, plus some guy named Kellen Winslow, to bringing in Mark Malone and drafting Anthony Miller. The 1992 Browns replaced Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, and Reggie Langhorne with Mike Tomczak and Michael (he-he) Jackson. The 2004 49ers went from Garcia and Owens (plus Tai Streets) to Tim Rattay, Brandon Lloyd, and Cedrick Wilson.
Most of those teams above, though, made trades or brought in some free agents with a history of playing in the league to offset the loss or retirement of those players. I understand that Palmer, Owens and Ochocinco were not playing at a level equal to their reputations. Still, the Bengals’ move from that QB/WR combo to one that will have virtually no experience in the league is almost unprecedented, at least in the modern era.
[photo via Getty, all data regarding franchise starting lineups via pro-football-reference.com]