Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell radioed the play call into Joshua Dobbs’ headset.
The Vikings’ just-off-the-plane quarterback remembered the verbiage from the playbook he received upon joining the team five days prior. He remembered, too, watching his teammates install this red-zone option.
But Dobbs, who started the first eight weeks of the season for the Arizona Cardinals, had never practiced this play call. He’d certainly never practiced it with his new teammates. Now, they needed to execute with the game on the line, down four points, with 27 seconds to play.
Facing third-and-4 from the 6-yard line, Dobbs dropped back. He stood tall in the pocket and scanned the field for four seconds as receiver Brandon Powell faked in and then cut out. Dobbs fired to the airborne Powell in the end zone, the touchdown lifting Minnesota to a 30-28 win.
On one hand, this was all so new for Dobbs. He was playing for a new team, in a new city, with a new offense and a very new play call. On the other hand, adapting to new football has been Dobbs’ forté across the last 11 months.
He started his first career NFL game last December, eight days after the Tennessee Titans hired him and then kept him to start their regular-season finale as well. Dobbs then spent training camp this season with the Cleveland Browns before the Browns traded him to the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 24. By Sept. 10, he was starting his first of eight straight games in Arizona. And after Vikings starting quarterback Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles Oct. 29, Minnesota sent a sixth-round draft pick to Arizona in exchange for Dobbs and a conditional seventh.
By the second quarter of Minnesota’s next game, rookie quarterback Jaren Hall had sustained a concussion and Dobbs’ on-field opportunity had begun. Dobbs’ dual-threat performance impressed coaches, evaluators and players across the league — and earned him a start Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
At this point, he’s embracing the chaos that is his norm.
“I’ve been put in some drastic situations over the last 12 months, so my confidence is high,” Dobbs told reporters. “This one was kind of learn-as-you-go, hair’s on fire, hold onto your seat. But guys were able to respond.
“I’ve been in these situations and had to process a lot of information in a short amount of time, so it does prepare you.”
Does it? Yahoo Sports spoke to coaches, talent evaluators and players across the league to understand just how difficult Dobbs’ latest accomplishment is — and why he was uniquely ready to meet the challenge.
Dobbs’ Vikings performance was even more difficult than it looked
Dobbs’ assessment that he’s capable of processing a lot of information in a short period of time because he’s done so is accurate, if backward. The assertion begs the question: Why has he needed to fly into action so much lately? And how has he succeeded enough amid spontaneity to keep the job offers rolling?
One league source who worked with Dobbs at a previous stop was effusive in describing him.
“He’s suuuuuper intelligent,” the source said with an emphasis that one ‘u’ does not capture.
Dobbs’ 4.0 GPA in aerospace engineering at Tennessee is as renowned in NFL circles as his internships with NASA.
Congratulations @josh_dobbs1 on yesterday’s big win! Looks like you rock(et) on and off the field. We heard you’ve even got a new nickname, the “Passtronaut.” If the suit fits, wear it.🚀 pic.twitter.com/Pah3MuQsWs
— NASA’s Glenn Research Center (@NASAglenn) November 6, 2023
But intelligence alone doesn’t make a quarterback. Dobbs merges intelligence to digest a playbook quickly with charisma to expedite chemistry with a locker room and instinct to create plays when the structure breaks down or the foundational reads he remembers don’t materialize, past colleagues say.
“The biggest thing for me, when you’re looking at people that have instincts, is: What do they do out of the pocket?” the league source told Yahoo Sports. “If you go and watch him out of the pocket, when things break down, he’s above average. Other guys either don’t escape or they sit there and wait because when they break the pocket, it’s chaos and good rarely happens.
“It can’t be overstated what he’s done.”
Dobbs needed to learn a game plan in five days, not only memorizing concepts but also metabolizing them sufficiently to apply them in the speed of an NFL game. Even if he could hold off learning some layers of playbook concepts, the framework is still expansive. Veteran quarterback Matt Barkley told Yahoo Sports that when he started a 2018 game for Buffalo 11 days after signing with the team, he crossed out call sheet options that he wasn’t comfortable with or couldn’t immediately visualize. The resulting game plan was “one of the simplest” he’d ever encountered … and still included roughly 150 of 200 possible calls, Barkley estimates.
Learning terminology was the next step for Dobbs. What do the play calls — that he now needs to shout with conviction — mean? And if any words were present in his prior systems under different definitions, how can he rewire his brain to the current vocabulary?
“It’s like if you were taking AP Spanish all year [then] on Wednesday, you showed up and someone told you you have that AP French exam on Sunday and you gotta go execute,” Dobbs said. “Someone’s going to talk to you in Spanish and translate it to French.
“If you could hear the headset, there was a lot going on. A lot of jumbledness.”
And that’s all just the quarterbacking challenge that Dobbs encountered before the hurdles that arrive when working in a team game that relies so heavily on chemistry and rapport. Dobbs had not practiced his cadence, which offensive linemen rely on for their signals, until a sideline moment just before he entered.
Dobbs had not had the chance to discuss routes with his pass-catchers, or even throw at all to most of them, before he needed to anticipate their moves in real time. How would they get in and out of cuts? How would they break down with their hips?
His lone throwing experience with Powell, whom he found for the game-winning touchdown, came in pregame warmups. Dobbs and Powell interpreted a route differently and whiffed.
Dobbs’ performance wasn’t flawless, even if the post-win jubilation suggested it was. Dobbs lost one fumble while trying to escape the pocket and throw the ball away in the second quarter. He was strip-sacked again in the third.
In all, Dobbs completed 20 of 30 attempts for 158 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 101.8 passer rating. Dobbs also rushed seven times for 66 yards and a touchdown, picking up 22 yards on fourth-and-7 with 52 seconds to play to keep the game alive.
“We wanted to bring in a guy who had recently played, felt the speed of the game before, had the athletic ability to maybe create some things to resolve a conflict,” O’Connell said. “His intelligence off the charts and his comprehension of information in real time with crowd noise and 10 other guys screaming at you in the huddle … [is] what made it such a special day.”
Could Joshua Dobbs solidify role as NFL starter?
As Dobbs prepares to start his first game for the Vikings this Sunday, it’s worth asking: Is he gathering momentum toward a starting opportunity?
The influx of interest in his service across the last year speaks to Dobbs’ value in the NFL as a short-term answer. Whether teams view him as a medium-to-long-term answer remains to be seen.
Dobbs may have his best chance yet to succeed in Minnesota, with a former quarterback in O’Connell radioing into his headset and a talented group of weapons highlighted by rookie Jordan Addison, tight end T.J. Hockenson and working-toward-return star receiver Justin Jefferson.
The league source who had worked with Dobbs at a previous stop said the QB has the mobility, instincts, intelligence and leadership that NFL teams seek. The source rated Dobbs’ arm talent as sufficient if not top-line. Durability is the biggest question.
“It’ll be interesting to see if his body can hold up again,” the source said. “He’s very skinny. So now you’re getting into, ‘OK, is he gonna play every week? Is he gonna be able to hold up?’ I hope so.
“I think he throws it well enough to be a starter.”
Dobbs’ career record as a starter could also be held against him, his teams losing nine of the 10 games he started prior to the relief win for the Vikings. But NFL teams’ recurring eagerness to hire Dobbs suggests they see something different. Dobbs has exceeded expectations when playing with Tennessee and Arizona rosters that were widely considered to front talent below league average. He kept those teams competitive in games when they weren’t expected to be.
In 11 games since last December, Dobbs has completed 227 of 364 passes (62.4%) for 12 touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 81.5 passer rating. He has rushed for another 368 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry during that stretch. Sunday, he became the first player in NFL history to score three-plus touchdowns in back-to-back games with different teams, per Next Gen Stats.
After attempting just 17 passes in his first five seasons in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2017 fourth-round pick is now showing what he can do when he plays consistently. He’s beginning to show what he can do when he knows his playbook and personnel. And with the Vikings, he’ll get the chance to play with his most talented supporting cast yet.
“I’m grateful to be here, I’m excited man,” Dobbs told his teammates last week in the postgame locker room. “We’ll enjoy this one. But as they all say: cheers to the next one.”