ATLANTA — A few days ago, a man walked into the locker room at the Minnesota Vikings’ practice facility carrying a hanger with a red No. 15 jersey dangling off it like he just grabbed it from a discount rack at a local sporting goods store. Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings’ center, noticed this man and decided to introduce himself. He stood up and extended his hand.
“Garrett,” he said.
“Josh Dobbs,” the man replied.
“Welcome, man,” Bradbury said.
“Pumped to be here,” Dobbs responded.
There was a pause. Then Dobbs put two and two together: This was the Vikings’ center, a teammate of some significance for a quarterback just beginning to get his bearings in a new city, a new team, a new offense.
“I’ve actually got some cadence questions for you when you’ve got some time,” he said.
“Any time!” Bradbury said, while privately wondering how in the world Dobbs had already thought about cadences. “Just hit me up on it whenever.”
Neither man could know then what we know now. That a mere 78 hours after that introduction, Dobbs would have his hands between Bradbury’s legs while 71,000 enemy fans and 11 Atlanta Falcons defenders were breathing down their necks. Five days after he was acquired in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals, Dobbs would not only be running the Vikings offense, but he would also be improvising on the fly, making plays with his legs and commanding the unit as if he had been running it for years to spur Minnesota to an improbable and enthralling 31-28 victory Sunday over the Falcons. He finished with 158 yards through the air on 20-of-30 passing. He also ran for 66 yards on seven carries. At the time of that initial conversation, Dobbs was just trying to find his way around.
After meeting Bradbury, he meandered to his locker. Reporters crowded around him. Cameras zoomed in on his bewildered face. He talked about the trade. About how, in the 36-hour span that followed last weekend’s Cardinals loss, he had transitioned from starter to backup to learning the Vikings had added him in the aftermath of Kirk Cousins’ ruptured right Achilles tendon. The news stunned him. Really? After starting the first eight games of the season? After finally finding a place to live? He had to move again?
Never give up. pic.twitter.com/2YBhXrx55s
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 5, 2023
He had been living out of the same suitcase for the first six weeks of the 2023 season. This is what happens when the Cleveland Browns trade you late in training camp. Finally, his furniture arrived last week. To celebrate, his parents flew from their home in Alpharetta, Ga., to stay with him and watch him play. They enjoyed the weekend, Dobbs said, and even if he was unsatisfied with his play, they all appreciated the brief moment of stability.
In reality, the only thing stable in his young NFL career has been the color of the jersey he wears in practice. Quarterbacks almost always wear red, no matter if the game day version is Steeler black, Titan blue, Cardinal red or, now, Viking purple. The 28-year-old has appeared in games for four teams in 3 1/2 years and been rostered on three more, a dizzying ride that he likes to call “a beautiful journey.” Finishing the introductory interview Thursday, he scanned the Vikings’ locker room, looked to the left, then the right. He blinked hard. His eyes flickered with what appeared to be oncoming tears.
“This is going to be a tremendous story to tell,” he said.
The man stands at a lectern in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Vikings have won. The locker room is vibrating. In an adjacent interview room, the man grabs the microphone with his right hand, looks up at the media members seated before him and says: “What’s up, y’all. I’m Josh Dobbs. Honored to be in Minnesota. (Wanted to) introduce myself.”
Dobbs had just commandeered the Vikings on an 11-play, 75-yard game-winning drive with 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining. The momentum built like a tidal wave, and Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah paced in the press box as he watched it all.
Josh Dobbs and Kevin O’Connell embrace after the @Vikings go-ahead touchdown! pic.twitter.com/l0JthGBpow
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 5, 2023
Adofo-Mensah was antsy, nervous and unquestionably entertained amid an afternoon that had been gut-wrenching. The team’s starting quarterback, rookie Jaren Hall, exited with a concussion after a collision at the goal line on his second drive of the game. One of the team’s starting wide receivers, K.J. Osborn, was carted off after a vicious hit over the middle. Backup running back Cam Akers had been taken to the locker room with an Achilles injury. Superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson watched from the sideline for the fourth straight game and ascending left tackle Christian Darrisaw was a late scratch with a groin injury.
Thanks to a valiant effort by Brian Flores’ defensive unit, and a gutsy offensive effort, the Vikings had a chance that lay in the hands of the man Adofo-Mensah had just acquired. At the time of the deal, the Vikings were certain about one thing: Dobbs could learn an offense on a whim. Not memorize an offensive playbook or call sheet — but learn it. Dobbs’ college coach at Tennessee, Butch Jones, described this quality as Dobbs’ functional intelligence.
“It’s not just book smart,” Jones said. “He’s able to apply what he learns and take it over on the field. The great thing is you only have to tell him one time.”
By now, you probably know that Dobbs is legitimately a rocket scientist. His college coursework at Tennessee consisted of mastering engineering equations. That passion derives from a childhood fascination with space. The math background does not translate directly to football, but as Dobbs has said, there are more similarities between quarterbacks and engineers than you might think.
“Defenses are giving me different problems, where you’re taking the assessment of data from film, and you have to assess those problems and solve them quickly to put your team in efficient situations,” he said in a video detailing an externship he had with NASA. Yes, you read that right.
Having Dobbs do so Sunday was never the Vikings’ plan, but then again, Dobbs’ path has rarely gone to plan. If he looked comfortable in the heat of crunchtime Sunday against the Falcons, it is only because he knows what it feels like to be thrown into the fire. The first time Dobbs took the field in college at the University of Tennessee came as a true freshman. Against Alabama. At Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Tennessee starter Justin Worley exited with an injury, and Dobbs came in and led the Volunteers on their only two scoring drives of the game in a 45-10 loss. Dobbs was still backing up Worley in the first seven games of his second season. When Worley suffered an injury, Jones gave Dobbs his first start of the season against a familiar foe: Alabama.
“We asked him to be able to have run-pass checks, run-run checks, run RPOs, designed quarterback runs, nakeds,” Jones said Sunday. “Everything you could ask of a quarterback, we asked of him. He didn’t blink. He was very poised. He executed it.”
The Vikings hoped these characteristics would show up for Hall, which is why they constructed their entire week of prep around the rookie. Hall participated in all of the first-team reps in practice. He met frequently with quarterbacks coach Chris O’Hara. Minnesota believed he could manage the operation, and Hall was off to a promising start before his head bounced off the turf on a tackle by Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah on the second drive of the game.
Dobbs observed the hit and initially worried for his new teammate. Realizing the severity, he stood and began to throw. He circled up with the Vikings offensive linemen to go over their five most oft-used cadences. He practiced snaps with Bradbury for the first time. He reviewed some of the Vikings’ priority play calls with O’Hara.
Time blurred, and before he knew it, he was on the field, shrugging off tacklers, escaping pockets and listening to Kevin O’Connell map out plays in his ear. Through the crackling microphones, O’Connell described how Dobbs needed to drop back, where the primary reads were going to be, which routes would be happening on the left and which routes receivers would be running on the right. In fact, Dobbs said, the coach was using language that Dobbs had become accustomed to in previous systems to translate into what was necessary Sunday.
“It’s like if you were taking AP Spanish all year and you showed up and on Wednesday somebody said you had an AP French exam on Sunday,” Dobbs said. “Somebody is going to talk to you in Spanish and translate it to the French. That’s kinda what was going on out there.”
The operation was disjointed at first. The Falcons sacked Dobbs for a safety on his first possession. He fumbled on the next. But in the spirit of the team for which he is now playing, a team that has taken punches through the first nine weeks in the form of injuries to stars like Jefferson and Cousins, Dobbs responded.
Following a fumble on the Vikings’ first possession in the second half, Dobbs started to find a rhythm. He scrambled for first downs, disposing of linebackers as if he’d hit a game breaker. He climbed the pocket and placed the ball accurately down the field. He managed the game efficiently, effectively, confidently. He threw a 2-yard touchdown to Alexander Mattison in the second quarter, scrambled 18 yards for a touchdown in the third and also led two field goal drives in the second half. Each successful drive built belief in Dobbs and his teammates that their fourth straight victory was within reach, even after Atlanta scored to go up 28-24 just before the two-minute warning.
On 3rd & 10, Joshua Dobbs scrambled 55.6 yards to pick up 11, enough for a @Vikings first down.
???? Expected Rush Yards: 4
???? Rush Yards Over Expected: +7
???? First Down Probability: 7.6%
Alexander Mattison found the end zone on a 2-yard rec TD two plays later.#MINvsATL | #SKOL pic.twitter.com/S74YXmqrux
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 5, 2023
No matter what was happening around him — safeties, fumbles, defensive breakdowns — Dobbs wasn’t shaken. He had been sacked before. He had turned the ball over before. He had been traded before. He had also engineered game-winning drives before, including one that will live forever in Tennessee lore when he completed a 43-yard Hail Mary to Jauan Jennings to win at Georgia in 2016.
Facing a fourth-and-7 Sunday, with the pocket collapsing, Dobbs teleported his way through the bodies and scampered for a first down. And then, in the red zone, with O’Connell feeding him information in his helmet about the Falcons’ tendency to play Cover 4 in the red zone, Dobbs shifted his eyes to the right, then found wide receiver Brandon Powell in the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Powell spiked the football in celebration. O’Connell fist-pumped aggressively, then spiked his headset in glee. Dobbs flexed, screamed, absorbed the energy of it all.
“I know he’s very, very smart,” O’Connell said. “But I can tell you that what he was able to do in five days time was as impressive of what I’ve seen a quarterback do to come here against that defense and find a way.”
When reached Sunday night at his office at Arkansas State University, Jones informed a caller that he had not seen the game, but that his phone had not stopped buzzing all day. When he was informed of the details of Dobbs’ heroics, Jones chuckled and said he was not surprised one bit.
“The thing we discovered early with Josh is the true form of Josh Dobbs comes out when you make him live, when he’s in game settings,” Jones said. “That’s where his natural instincts kick in.”
O’Connell could barely speak at his news conference. His voice sounded like it was made of gravel, strained to the limits by his on-the-fly, in-game install sessions as Dobbs moved from one play to the next.
“As you can hear, I (used) this quite a bit,” he said, pointing to his throat.
He talked about Dobbs. About the command, about the athleticism, about the efficiency. A local reporter then asked a question about what O’Connell thought it meant to Dobbs to perform like this nearly 30 minutes from where he grew up.
“This may surprise you,” O’Connell interjected, “but I just met him a few days ago and I didn’t even know that. You just gave me something to talk to our new quarterback about.”
“He’s from Alpharetta High,” the reporter responded.
“Well, there you go,” O’Connell said.
Dobbs’ parents attended Sunday’s game, and when it comes to Dobbs’ story, Jones said it begins there — with Robert and Stephanie — who supported their child’s dreams. Who poured gasoline on the fire of the kid who wanted to pursue aerospace engineering and quarterback at the same time. Who have watched their son move from team to team, city to city, opportunity to opportunity with a belief that he could continuously improve.
Jacob Nichols, who coached Dobbs in high school, was prepping for a forthcoming Georgia high school playoff game when his phone began blowing up about what his former player had done to the local team.
When he heard, he couldn’t help but think about the first time he really understood what the man could become. Dobbs had been competing for the starting job, but coaches opted to start another player. Needing a spark late in the game, they thrust in the heady junior, who marched the team down the field, completed a game-winning crossing route and never looked back.
The Vikings needed more than a spark Sunday. They needed a savior. By the time the man was done working his magic at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, everyone in the Vikings locker room and everyone watching in the newest place he calls home knew his name.
His name is Josh Dobbs. He is the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.
(Photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)