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How good can Josh Dobbs be for the Vikings?
As he enters his third game in purple, the possibility feels real that Dobbs could keep rolling.... and then what?
By Matthew Coller
EAGAN — Minnesota Vikings history is littered with backup quarterbacks coming out of nowhere to lead magical runs.
Joe Kapp wasn’t the opening day starter in 1969 but he finished second in MVP voting and led the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Wade Wilson did not open the 1987 playoffs as the starter but came off the bench to lead them to the NFC title game. Brad Johnson started the ‘98 season, yet Randall Cunningham orchestrated one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Jeff George won a playoff game from the QB2 position in 1999. Case Keenum did not expect to start at all much less 14 games in 2017 but he found himself one game from the Super Bowl.
So why not Josh Dobbs?
Over the last two weeks, Dobbs has become one of the best stories in the NFL. In fact, the league changed its Twitter handle to “in Dobbs we trust” after he led the Vikings to a 27-19 win over the New Orleans Saints.
No doubt, it has been a remarkable two weeks. Going from being benched in Arizona to posting a 101.4 QB rating in two victories against relatively strong opponents would be impressive enough but it carries even more weight that the wins catapulted the Vikings into a spot as favorites for a wild card playoff spot. When the dust settled on Week 10, the analytics sites were projecting the Vikings anywhere from 80-90% odds to make the playoffs. Even two weeks ago when Dobbs arrived they were less than a coin flip to make it.
In the process winning back-to-back games with the former Steeler, Jaguar, Brown, Titan, Brown (again) and Cardinal has found instant chemistry with his receivers that you would not expect from someone who just moved out of his hotel last week.
“I think it’s a big shout-out to them,” Dobbs said. “Finding ways to get extra work with me, whether it’s through the communication we have in passing in the locker room, in the film room or getting extra reps on the practice field. Just finding ways to build in as many game-simulated reps as we can, given that we haven’t had as many banked reps as a lot of teams have had up until this point in the season.”
In his first game against Atlanta, Dobbs got the ball to nine different receivers. Versus the Saints, tight end TJ Hockenson had a breakout game and he found Jordan Addison and Brandon Powell four times each.
Of his 34 attempts, PFF tracked only four as being “contested catch” opportunities for the receivers. His success wasn’t entirely receivers running wide open though. Per NFLNextGen stats, Dobbs had a completion percentage 1.7% over what was expected based on location of receivers and defenders, which was fifth best in the league for Week 10.
The Vikings’ new quarterback has also brought a new element to the offense: Rushing. He has 110 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground, which were earned with highlight-reel scampers. Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips jokingly apologized for underestimating his ability to outrun fast NFL defensive players. Dobbs leads the NFL in rushing Expected Points Added among QBs and has two of the fastest five top speeds by a quarterback in the NFL this year, including topping 20 mph on Sunday. Head coach Kevin O’Connell said he expected Dobbs to make that type of impact on the ground.
“He has a real ability as a runner, I think it comes natural to him,” O’Connell said.
The overall results for the offense have been positive. The Vikings have scored the sixth most points in the NFL over the last two weeks and they clearly let off the gas pedal in the second half against New Orleans after posting 24 in the first 30 minutes. Between Weeks 9 and 10, PFF grades Dobbs as the league’s seventh best QB.
It feels like there is something happening here. Particularly with Justin Jefferson set to return at some point soon, it’s hard to see things getting worse as his supporting cast and knowledge of the offense improves.
But there are a number of factors that make Dobbs difficult to project in the short and long term.
Short term success with previously unproven quarterbacks always comes along with skepticism. Eventually the magic ran out for Jeff George and Case Keenum and many others around the NFL over the years. How about the time Ryan Fitzpatrick started 5-2 in 2011 with a 97.8 QB rating and then finished 1-8 with a 66.5 rating during that tumble. Josh McCown threw 13 touchdowns to one INT in a five-game sample with the Bears and then went 1-10 for the Bucs the following season. Who else remembers Nick Foles’ 119.2 QB rating over 10 games in 2013?
For every example that didn’t last, there is one that did. Matt Hasselbeck went from a backup in Green Bay to middling starter to star over the course of a few years with Seattle. Jake Delhomme jumped from Saints backup to the Super Bowl with Carolina and went 49-30 as a starter over a five year stretch. Even if we look around the NFL presently we can see the impact of circumstances and opportunities. Brock Purdy A.K.A. Mr. Irrelevant is having another good season in San Francisco with a mad scientist coach and crazy-good weapons. Heck, Kirk Cousins was a backup in Washington and built a long career as a starter.
How can you factor Dobbs’ previous situation considering it was so much different than his present one? In Arizona the Cardinals were in the midst of a total rebuild and traded away DeAndre Hopkins. Dobbs was throwing to one receiver who graded above average by PFF (Marquise Brown) and third-round rookie Michael Wilson as WR2.
But it can’t be dismissed that Dobbs’ numbers were reflective of a backup QB. He averaged just 6.0 yards per attempt and had the third most turnover-worthy plays before joining the Vikings. Over the entire season Dobbs has a 73.9 QB rating on passes between 10-20 yards and he’s 5-for-16 as a Viking. Kirk Cousins had a 125.9 rating on those throws, for context.
There was an up-and-down nature to Dobbs in his short stint with the Cards. In two games he played outstanding ball and graded over a 75 by PFF but in four other games he was among the lowest graded QBs in the league for that given week. By another metric: He has four contests over a 100 QB rating and five under 80.
The door is open to Dobbs mania turning into the Dobbs-coaster. But it’s hard to believe that a coaching staff that evened out Cousins’ ups and downs over the last two years wouldn’t have the same effect on Dobbs, particularly when we just saw him come into the offense and cruise against the Saints after one full week of preparation.
“There’s some things comfort-wise that I can do better for him,” O’Connell said. “We’ll continue to kind of perfect what has been a pretty rapid process here but one that I do feel good about and continuing to grow from here.”
Another factor in the short term evaluation is the defenses Dobbs faced. Before being traded he went up against the Cowboys, 49ers, Bengals, Rams, Seahawks and Ravens. All of those teams are in the top 15 in defensive passing EPA. The Saints are ninth. Minnesota’s upcoming opponents rank 29th, 32nd, 15th, 14th, 13th and 19th (twice).
There are more reasons to think Dobbs can get the Vikings to the playoffs than not. Where they can go from there will be determined by an entire host of factors but if he does reach the postseason then there will be a whole new discussion of whether the Vikings should make him the QB in 2024.
There have already been reports that the Vikings have not closed the door to a Cousins return. It wouldn’t make any sense to close the door to anything yet. But ESPN’s Adam Schefter had an interesting note during his appearance on the Pat McAfee show, saying, “he has to sustain it over the rest of the season to have the type of decision [on becoming the future QB]. If he maintains this and keeps this up, yeah, it’s hard to move on from him. I think there were people in Minnesota that wanted a mobile quarterback.”
The question is where the bar is set for Dobbs to earn the team’s belief in him going forward. Would they need to win a playoff game? Is it based on the offense’s production with him at the helm? How will they project his performance with such a small sample size? Will it be based on O’Connell’s comfort with him? Remember, Case Keenum operated a top 10 scoring offense and the Vikings sent him packing because they didn’t believe he could keep doing it.
And where does Kirk Cousins factor into this? Amidst Dobbs Mania it’s easy to lose track of the fact he had a 103.8 quarterback rating through eight games and O’Connell said he was playing the best ball of his career.
Cousins spoke with the media for the first time since he tore his Achilles about the possibility of a potential return.
“There’s a lot that’s out of my control, so you can want a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, so I keep an open mind, but would certainly like for [a return to the Vikings] to be the case,” Cousins said.
Following the injury, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was asked if he wanted Cousins to return and he pointed out that there are so many other factors that go beyond whether he wants Cousins back or not. That means the price and length of his contract. Is it possible that he could take a discount? Or will they even want him back at a reduced price? Or will another team swoop in with a big offer?
Maybe it rests on Dobbs shoulders to prove that the Vikings do not need to bring back a quarterback in his mid-30s, even if he was performing at a high level. Maybe it depends on what they think of the upcoming draft class and their odds to pick a QB.
The way things change in the NFL, the decision seems very far away from now and lots can change before March.
Until then, everyone will be riding the Dobbs wave wondering each week, is this for real?