In general, I’ve never been a “tank the season” kind of guy.
I don’t necessarily have anything against those fans. We’ve seen countless examples of terrible teams winning a meaningless game or two and costing them a chance at a generational player. I won’t fault any of the Jacksonville Jaguars or Cincinnati Bengals faithful who hoped their team would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and find a way to secure their quarterback of the future.
That said, it’s just not in my DNA. So when things looked grim after the 1-4 start, I appreciated when Kevin O’Connell chose to rally the troops rather than sink the season. This team’s run to fight their way back into Wild Card contention was pretty remarkable, including the pair of wins with Josh Dobbs at the helm.
But after a rough outing in Denver and a catastrophe against the Chicago Bears, it wasn’t long until fans online wondered if Dobbs’ magic had run out. O’Connell seemed to have doubts, leaving the door open for a quarterback change after the bye week.
If you’d straw-polled the fanbase, rookie Jaren Hall likely would have been their quarterback of choice to start in Vegas. We got the briefest glimpse of Hall in Atlanta before Dobbs took over, and it was a promising (if tiny) sample size. For many fans, this team doesn’t appear to be a Super Bowl contender, so it may be more valuable to get an evaluation on their rookie quarterback before next season. In that sense, it’s a situation not all that different from when some fans were calling for the team to tank at 1-4.
But as he did last time, O’Connell is betting on himself and this team. And that tells us a lot about the kind of coach he wants to be so early in his tenure.
The Vikings are starting Dobbs this week against the Las Vegas Raiders. For at least one more week, Dobbs held off the 25-year-old rookie out of BYU and fellow journeyman Nick Mullens. I’ll grant you that neither Hall nor Mullens are exactly high-pedigree talents the team made significant investments in. Still, I don’t think this was an easy decision for O’Connell by any stretch.
For starters, Dobbs is coming off one of the worst games of his career. And that wasn’t against the ‘85 Bears, either. It was a fairly average defense that’d been particularly vulnerable through the air this season. But rather than bouncing back with a strong performance in the passing game, Chicago’s secondary instituted a No-Fly Zone against Dobbs.
Dobbs’ timing was poor, his footwork was sloppy, and his passes were inaccurate. All that culminated in a brutal performance through the air. Balls were late, Chicago contested every catch, and the team couldn’t make a play. The few times when plays were there to be made, Dobbs didn’t see it, or he flat-out missed. Need I make us relive that egregious overthrow on Addison’s would-be touchdown?
But in Dobbs’ defense, he’s had far less time in this offense than Mullens. Even Hall got a full training camp and ran a similar offense in college. The fact that Dobbs has performed well in any capacity is pretty remarkable. However, his recent drop-off in play makes me concerned he may just not be a great scheme fit.
O’Connell’s scheme is based on precise timing, pre-snap reads, and accuracy. These were all things that made Kirk Cousins so effective; he was a good fit to be an extension of O’Connell on the field. On the other hand, Dobbs struggles with precise timing, has occasionally made poor pre-snap reads, and his sloppy footwork has led to scattershot accuracy. By all accounts, Dobbs doesn’t strike me as an “O’Connell quarterback.”
That’s why I think O’Connell’s decision to start Dobbs is perhaps the most fascinating twist so far. Either Dobbs spent the bye week mastering the principles of the Shanahan/McVay/O’Connell Wide Zone offense, or Kevin O’Connell is willing to forsake the offensive principles he’s built this team around and get out of his comfort zone. While Dobbs lacks some of the assets O’Connell might usually prioritize, he offers a lot to Minnesota’s offense.
Dobbs is incredibly athletic and could add a new dynamic to this team if he uses it properly. Dobbs may be a square peg in a round hole in Minnesota, but O’Connell may be signaling that he’s willing to adapt by naming Dobbs the starter. Simply put, Mullens or Hall may be better fits in the O’Connell system, but Dobbs still provides the best chance to win.
With Justin Jefferson returning this week, using Dobbs as a running threat could change this offense completely. A runner at quarterback always means better numbers in the running game because it always means a minimum of one extra blocker than you’d usually have on a traditional run. Add in the misdirection of a well-executed read option, and it’s a powerful tool.
Defenses often have no choice but to account for running quarterbacks with extra bodies, either in the form of blitzers or spies. And each extra body they bring into the box to stymie this collegiate-style running game is one less safety to play bracket coverage on Jefferson and the Vikings receivers.
Of course, it’s not a total cheat code. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it. But it seems like there’s a clear path to competitive success for Dobbs running that type of offense. I suppose this prognostication could be completely wrong, and O’Connell may start Dobbs against Vegas without any significant change. However, O’Connell is probably smart enough to see what we all do: Dobbs requires a play tailored to his skillset, not the other way around.
It’s abundantly clear O’Connell wanted the quarterback who could win him games right now, not just audition for next season. We’ll see if that attitude, combined with the return of Justin Jefferson, can resurrect this offense down the stretch.