For a time, Kevin Colbert, the former Pittsburgh Steelers general manager, worried while watching Josh Dobbs.
Colbert had drafted the quarterback in the fourth round of the 2017 draft to be an understudy to Ben Roethlisberger. Dobbs played sparingly, but during spot snaps or preseason games, he’d often dip and rip his way through the pocket, then scramble out into the open field.
The GM’s concern centered around Dobbs’ health.
“He’s not the biggest person,” Colbert said of the slender 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, “and he was subject to big hits. But it never seemed to bother him at all.”
Over the years, Dobbs’ avoidance of serious injury eased Colbert’s anxieties. So the GM began to embrace Dobbs’ athleticism as a weapon.
“To have that creative ability in addition to the pocket-passing ability,” Colbert said, “that’s a great bonus to have.”
The Minnesota Vikings discovered this in Dobbs’ first two appearances with the team. In Week 9 in Atlanta, Dobbs’ creativity was responsible for multiple touchdowns in the red zone. He performed similarly the following week against New Orleans.
Josh Dobbs’ rise to NFL prominence is hard to believe — unless you know him
Sunday night’s loss to the Denver Broncos contained aspects of that introductory magic. In the second quarter, on a third-and-1 from the 3-yard line, Dobbs peeled out of the pocket, stiff-armed Broncos edge rusher Jonathan Cooper, kept his eyes downfield and tossed a pass into the hands of tight end Josh Oliver for a touchdown. In the third quarter, on a third-and-8 from the 10, Dobbs scanned the left side of the field, then decisively tucked the ball and squeezed between would-be tacklers for a rushing touchdown.
.@josh_dobbs1 are you kidding me?!?
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 20, 2023
“I thought, once again, his athleticism showed up clearly on some critical downs,” coach Kevin O’Connell said Monday.
The challenge now, it would seem, is finding the correct balance. When should Dobbs scramble, and when shouldn’t he? When should he carefully go through his progressions? And when should he just take off and run?
Straddling the line between the scripted and the unscripted defines who Dobbs is as a player. How far he ultimately takes these 6-5 Vikings may depend on O’Connell, Dobbs and the offense’s pursuit of harmony.
O’Connell referenced this Monday.
“We don’t want to take any of that (improvisational ability) out of his game because it’s a critical factor for him,” O’Connell said. “In addition, as he builds comfort and confidence in our progressions, and in the footwork and rhythm and timing of our pass game, I think we’ll continue to see some improvement.”
The value of Dobbs’ scrambling ability is undeniable, even for the opposition.
“He’s kind of elusive,” Cooper, the Denver edge rusher said. “Credit to him — he made some good plays out there.”
The numbers back it up, too. Among 40 qualified quarterbacks this season — including Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson — Dobbs ranks first in scrambling EPA, according to TruMedia. His EPA per dropback on scrambles is eight times more valuable than Mahomes’ EPA per dropback on pass plays. He has rushed for more yards over expected on scrambles this season (plus 139) than any other quarterback in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence with the ball in his hands,” O’Connell said last week. “Clearly, he has demonstrated (why).”
Joshua Dobbs currently ranks among the top 2 quarterbacks in scramble runs (30), rushing yards (317), touchdowns (4), rushing yards over expected (+139), and first downs over expected (+8) this season.#MINvsDEN | #Skol pic.twitter.com/BehsDYbXK4
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 20, 2023
The complication lies in the potential for turnovers and the chance that scrambling constantly can hamper the rhythm and timing of the Vikings’ passing game.
On the first point, Dobbs has fumbled the ball 14 times in 2023, the most of any quarterback in the NFL. Lamar Jackson ranks second with 10. That number includes center-quarterback exchange mishaps, of which there were several Sunday night.
But Dobbs is aware of the issue — to the degree that he shared his oft-used line again Sunday night: “The ball is our dreams, goals and aspirations. As the person the ball goes through, it starts with me.”
On the second point, over the last three weeks, Dobbs ranks ninth among 28 qualified quarterbacks in EPA on pass attempts, according to TruMedia. His ability to progress through his reads showed up multiple times against the Broncos. Early in the third quarter, he converted an 18-yard out route to wide receiver Jordan Addison from the opposite hash. With 5:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, he pump-faked to the left flat, then turned toward tight end T.J. Hockenson and threw a strike.
There were times when Dobbs’ ball placement appeared iffy. On a third-and-4 in the fourth quarter, Dobbs hurled a pass down the seam to Addison. The ball arrived a tick late, and Broncos cornerback Patrick Surtain recovered nicely to break up the pass. Then, on the Vikings’ final drive, Dobbs could not connect with Hockenson on a quick choice route toward the right sideline.
Pass-protection problems hurt Dobbs in other instances. Right guard Ed Ingram had a shaky night. A linebacker blitz ate up running back Ty Chandler. And an all-out Broncos blitz prevented a touchdown chance in the red zone.
“I could’ve given T.J. a couple of better balls on his out cuts (on our final drive),” Dobbs said. “That’s an area of improvement for me. Being more accurate in those situations.”
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For the season, Dobbs’ off-target pass percentage (13.8) is the third highest among 22 quarterbacks with 300 pass attempts. The addition of superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the next few weeks will provide another target with a massive catch radius. O’Connell, quarterbacks coach Chris O’Hara and assistant quarterbacks coach Grant Udinski also will offer mechanical teaching points.
This, of course, returns us to Dobbs and the Vikings’ broader challenge: How much information do you feed a newcomer who is learning the offense on the fly? How much do you cater the offense to what he does well versus what the team has done well in the past?
Both parties will be answering these questions in real time. The result will shed light on both the team and the player — a coaching staff’s ability to evolve and adapt, and a player’s ability to grow.
(Photo: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
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