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What's it like preparing Josh Dobbs to start? Vikings QB coach Chris O'Hara explains
Once the Atlanta game was over, the coaching staff turned the page to install a full gameplan for Dobbs
By Matthew Coller
EAGAN — The night before one of the most memorable games of the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff’s careers, quarterbacks coach Chris O’Hara got together with Josh Dobbs in the team hotel in Atlanta to go over a few things about the offense just in case he had to get into the game. He had spent most of the week preparing Jaren Hall to make his first NFL start, which was a pretty unique task in comparison to working with Kirk Cousins, who had made 145 starts. Dobbs mostly worked with assistant quarterbacks coach Grant Udinski throughout the week as the journeyman tried to get acclimated to his surroundings. O’Hara figured he should steal a few minutes with Dobbs, even if they were hoping he wouldn’t be called upon.
The catch-up session proved to be worthwhile as Dobbs entered the game on the third drive and — after a rough start — ended up leading the Vikings to a stunning victory over the Atlanta Falcons. O’Hara describes it as “surreal” for Dobbs to have led a game-winning drive despite having to learn the offense on the fly through his headset during the game.
But they understood that the Atlanta game was an aberration. A once-in-a-decade type event. In the Not For Long football world, the comeback against the Falcons would have been quickly forgotten had the Vikings not followed it up with another strong performance.
In his first start at US Bank Stadium, Dobbs went 18-for-22 passing in the opening 30 minutes against the tough New Orleans Saints defense and walked into the locker room with a 24-3 lead at halftime. Ultimately the Vikings held on to win 27-19 and now sit in the driver’s seat to reach the playoffs.
So how did the coaching staff go from panic mode in Atlanta to getting Dobbs ready to start against New Orleans despite him still not knowing the full offense?
That started with the mindset of flipping the switch back to doing business as usual and treating the Saints week like it was any other normal build up to a home game in the middle of the season. The idea was that if they took the approach of paring things down for Dobbs that he wouldn’t be able to benefit from the full breadth of the scheme, which has routinely found ways to get receivers (and tight ends) open.
“We always fight the balance of making it comfortable with the quarterback but also the best plays possible for the team,” O’Hara said. “The best thing possible for the quarterback is when we can scheme it open and the receiver is wide open. That’s comfortable no matter what scheme. When you have a guy in open space, that’s comfortable. We generally don’t sacrifice a whole lot.”
On Monday the staff went through the Atlanta game and looked for everything they could build upon with Dobbs. Which details did they need to focus on with him going into his first start? Meanwhile the quarterback spent Monday familiarizing himself with the Saints defense, looking at their personnel and got a feel for the scheme that he would be attacking. O’Hara found some extra time to talk to Dobbs about some of the base elements of the offense that wouldn’t exactly be in the gameplan but he still needed to know.
“Not as much in the gameplan but the base roles if this or that ever comes up, stuff that we talk about in OTAs and training camp, general stuff that he wasn’t around for,” O’Hara said.
Tuesday was a typical Hell Day for the coaches. They arrived at the crack of dawn and it was well after dark by the time they left TCO Performance Center. The entire day/night was spent getting together the list of plays to use against the Saints. Dobbs added another layer to the process because they had to investigate his previous offense in Arizona looking for clues about what concepts might work best for him.
“We spent time watching some things that he did in Arizona looking at his skill set and his most comfortable throws. ‘Hey, he did this, which is similar to this,’ and how can we marry those together,” O’Hara explained.
Once the plays were curated, the list is sent over to Dobbs. O’Hara then talked with the quarterback to get his feedback and answer any questions he had about the package of plays that they expected to take into the Saints game.
On Wednesday the install began, starting with first and second down plays, the running game and play-actions. After practice, they reviewed how practice had gone and “cleaned up” any issues that may have come up. The challenging part about that is the Vikings still have not had their bye week so they have recently been using Wednesdays as walk throughs rather than full practices, meaning they had to work in some time for Dobbs to get throws to his receivers. He may finally know their names but he hasn’t had much experience with them.
“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 or, shoot, this part of the football year,” Dobbs said. “I appreciate my teammates, even when they’re sore and a little bit tired of working with me extra so we can get those extra reps.”
The quarterbacks went to their room to study the Saints defense while the coaches worked on the plan for third downs. O’Hara said they are lucky to have experienced quarterbacks in Cousins, Sean Mannion and Nick Mullens in the room so the coaches can trust that they are taking care of that part.
Thursday was the toughest practice leading up to the matchup against New Orleans. They went through all the third downs and the pass protection adjustments. Third down is usually when the opposing defensive coordinator is throwing the kitchen sink at the quarterback and the Vikings were aware that the Saints would be interested in testing whether Dobbs and the offensive line/tight ends/running backs were on the same page.
On Friday they installed the red zone plays — though in the game Dobbs decided to simply run past all the Saints players for a touchdown.
You would think that would be it. The hay is in the barn, right? O’Hara says that the “real work” begins for the quarterback after Friday’s practice.
“That’s where [quarterbacks] take the plan and spend their own time in their unique way of how they prepare themselves for every call and mentally visualize that,” O’Hara said. “It’s for them to have a quiet mind and play with confidence because they are prepared because they have already gone through a visualization process.”
The preparation doesn’t even end when Dobbs arrives at the stadium. Prior to the first drive, O’Hara walked over to his new quarterback and told him to take a moment to look around and appreciate it all. The full stadium, the SKOL chant, the opportunity. As Dobbs was cruising through the first half, scoring on four of the first five possessions, he was still looking to his QB coach for direction on the sideline between drives.
“He asks good questions and there’s good communication and we can preview things that are coming up next series,” O’Hara said. “In the two minute drive we were talking through plays. Two minute drills, you don’t get a lot of practice on them, so [he was asking] ‘if this comes up what am I doing if they play this coverage?’ He’s able to quickly hear what I’m saying and take it to the field, which is a good skill.”
On Dobbs’ touchdown pass to TJ Hockenson to end the half he described asking O’Hara about how to attack a particular look from the Saints defense and then getting exactly what they discussed.
“I literally just asked on the sideline, ‘hey, if we get this look, what are we thinking, just to confirm that my eyes are going to be in the right place,” Dobbs said postgame. “So we ended up getting the right look. T.J. did a good job of getting vertical and running to that open area.”
When the dust settled the Vikings were celebrating their fifth win in a row and second with a quarterback who just arrived at the trade deadline.
Certainly some of the unscripted plays were wow-inducing but where O’Hara was most proud was the moments where Dobbs executed the plays on time even when the Saints took away the first look.
“For me in the Saints game it was his ability to progress from the pocket and get through progressions and get the backside concepts when the front side isn’t open and see coverage and compete in the pocket and that’s what’s impressive to me because that’s what we worked on and coached,” O’Hara said. “He’s been a joy to work with.”
“I think Chris and Grant [Udinski] have not probably gotten enough credit for the amount of time that they have spent getting guys ready and making sure that we’ve got a plan for our starter the preparation Josh had last week,” O’Connell said. “I thought was a total credit to those guys. I think Josh deserves a ton of credit, but those guys coaching him are doing a great great job.”
The last few weeks have been quite an experience for O’Hara. He started his career as a student assistant at Temple and worked his way up through the ranks to offensive assistant with the Rams in 2021. When O’Connell was hired as the head coach of the Vikings in 2022 he made O’Hara his quarterbacks coach — a prominent, yet underrated position on a team whose head coach is a former quarterback and his QB1 Cousins was so experienced.
Now, amidst all the time spent preparing for game day, he is trying to take away lessons from these past few weeks changing QBs mid-season to apply to his coaching philosophy in the future.
“Being flexible and the ability to adapt, having to change your coaching style for different players,” O’Hara said. “Since this is the first time I was quarterback coach full time and Kirk is so experienced… there was a certain way I’m coaching him but the minute he goes down now you are coaching a rookie in Jaren [and now with Josh] you have to coach it differently. I definitely gained experience in coaching individuals in ways that are right for them and yet still be consistent in the message and find a way.”
Of course, Dobbs’ background made it easier on his coaches. Having been called upon multiple times to start on short notice, the journeyman already had an idea of what he was getting into when he arrived in Minnesota. And have you heard he’s a rocket scientist?
“Josh is definitely intelligent and able to retain information quickly,” O’Hara said. “Smart but also works at it and puts the time in and is detailed with his note taking. He has a process. There are a lot of rocket scientists out there and not many of them are playing quarterback.”
This week the Vikings’ staff rinsed and repeated as they prepare for the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football. They survived the first two weeks without Cousins but now opponents have something to see with Dobbs on tape. Each week is a new uphill battle to get the quarterback ready and the Vikings will need every minute if they are going to keep this rocket shooting up toward the playoffs.
“Well, that’s our job description,” O’Hara said, matter-of-factly.