Minnesota Vikings quarterback Josh Dobbs isn’t just brilliant, he’s part of a new era — Andscape
When then-Tennessee football coach Butch Jones was recruiting Josh Dobbs to Knoxville in 2013, he put the teenage quarterback through an exercise that quarterbacks prospects are graded on to test both their memory and ability to comprehend complex play calls.
The Volunteers coaches sat Dobbs down in front of a whiteboard, drew up an offensive play, erased it, and then asked Dobbs to reconstruct the play back to them to the best of his abilities.
Dobbs aced the quiz.
“He was able to do it verbatim,” Jones told Andscape earlier this week. “He was able to remember the terminology, recall it, process it, and be able to expand upon it.”
A quiz given to a teenager more than a decade ago doesn’t have much bearing on what happens today, but that exercise provides some context of how Dobbs — a career journeyman and rocket scientist — was able to pull off the improbable last week when he led the Minnesota Vikings to a last-second win over the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 5 after being on the team for five days.
Dobbs succeeded because he was what many quarterbacks who look like him aren’t expected to be: the smartest person in the room.
Defining intelligence may seem pretty straightforward, but it’s subjective. It’s not about the college you attended, the amount of Merriam-Webster definitions you remember, or the job you have: There are unemployed geniuses out there.
Anyone who decides to major in aerospace engineering and maintain a 4.0 GPA, as Dobbs did at the University of Tennessee from 2013-16, is smart. Tennessee’s aerospace engineering program focuses on the development of “the foundation for the design, development, production, testing, and applied research associated with aerospace vehicles.” This isn’t a common curriculum for a typical Division I football player.
But Dobbs did that. Exceptionally. According to Jones, Dobbs is the only SEC quarterback since 2004 to defeat Georgia and Florida in the same season, which he accomplished in 2016. A year later, he was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. By 2021, he had interned at NASA … twice.
This is new information to most of America, but for those who’ve known Dobbs for years, this is typical.
Jacob Nichols is an assistant coach of the football team at West Forsyth High School in Cumming, Georgia. In 2011 he was the offensive coordinator at nearby Alpharetta High School, where Dobbs had just transferred to as a junior.
Nichols knew early on that Dobbs was really smart. While playing for the team, Dobbs was also taking advanced placement courses in school and courses at a local college. He was a member of the National Honor Society and National Beta Club and found time to also play a musical instrument. “Our band director would argue he was maybe a better trumpet player than he was an athlete,” Nichols told Andscape.
What made Dobbs special, Nichols said, was that you only had to tell him something once and he understood it. And this is a teenager we’re talking about; the ones notorious for listening attentively to adults.
“And it didn’t matter if you told him in August and you were playing a game in November,” he said. “Not only was he able to remember it but he was able to adapt it and use it in a variety of situations as the season went on.”
That skill was on display against the Falcons. On the final drive of the game, with just over two minutes left in regulation and his team down 28-24 on its own 25-yard line, Dobbs marched the Vikings down the field, evading rushers, stepping up in the pocket, hitting a receiver on the sideline. On a fourth-and-7 on the Falcons’ 34-yard line, with just under a minute to play, Dobbs zigzagged around the field like he was Michael Vick playing against the Vikings in 2002, escaping the pursuit of at least four defenders for a 22-yard scramble.
Then with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Dobbs took the snap, scanned right before immediately turning his head to the left side of the field, bought himself maybe a second by repositioning his body, before sending a laser to receiver Brandon Powell inches into the end zone.
That sounds like something legendary quarterback Tom Brady would do.
But Dobbs did it while knowing just five of the offense’s cadences. He did it after only learning his center’s name a few days before the game. He didn’t take a single snap with the first-team offense that week. Receiver Jordan Addison said Dobbs would be in the huddle confirming what each player was supposed to do on a play. Coach Kevin O’Connell had to work Dobbs through the offense from his headset in the middle of the game, in 25-second intervals.
It’s similar to something Dobbs did at Alpharetta in 2011, when he was inserted into the first game of the season in the second quarter with the team down 6-0 to North Cobb, a local powerhouse. Dobbs ran for an 11-yard touchdown on his first play, and threw the game-winning touchdown with just 13 seconds left in the game.
“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 told reporters last Sunday.
It’s a baller quote, but it doesn’t explain how Dobbs was able to ace the French exam.
Jones has his theories.
Dobbs is obviously brilliant — I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to work for NASA, let alone intern — but it’s not just that. Jones, who is now the coach at Arkansas State, said he sees a supreme functional intelligence in his former quarterback.
Acing an exam is one thing, but having the discipline, and time-management and processing skills to ace the exam and hang 300 yards and four touchdowns on Florida … that’s operating at another level.
Jones gushes over how quickly Dobbs can discern and prioritize information, solving complex problems on the field while maintaining his composure, which he exhibited while running a two-minute drill with a bunch of dudes he just met in Minnesota. Those dudes didn’t include his No. 1 (Justin Jefferson) or No. 3 (K.J. Osborn) receivers or the starting left tackle (Christian Darrisaw). These aren’t the type of equations one can really solve in a controlled environment like a meeting or practice.
“You really don’t know what you have in Josh until it comes into a live, competitive situation,” Jones said. “Because … that’s where his instincts take over.”
Dobbs figuring this all out after just five days, it shouldn’t be possible. Some quarterbacks are on the same roster — knowing the same plays — for years and never come close to looking as good as Dobbs did Nov. 5.
“He’s smart as hell to come in here and learn that offense that fast and go out there and call them plays,” Powell said. “He’s smart, that’s a smart dude.”
And the fact that Dobbs is a Black quarterback makes it all the more impressive.
Not to give NFL front offices too much credit, but we’ve reached a new era in football when the Black quarterback is being called in to stabilize things. The Vikings traded for Dobbs, as O’Connell mentioned in a media availability before last week’s game, because of his experience in a variety of NFL offenses, a nice way of saying Dobbs has been signed to seven teams since 2017, four since January 2023.
Those jobs used to go to the Brian Hoyers, Jay Cutlers, and Josh McCowns of the world, but now Dobbs, Teddy Bridgewater and Jacoby Brissett are perceived as valuable backups or starting quarterbacks in the league.
Decades of research — and having two functional eyes — have found that Black athletes, particularly quarterbacks in football, are treated differently than their white counterparts. Black quarterbacks are perceived as only having success because of genetic athletic traits, such as how many Black quarterbacks are compared to Vick solely by running the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds. But for white quarterbacks, typically their success is attributed to their intelligence: How many times have you heard that former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard?
This has been mentioned many times but bears repeating: Warren Moon — the only-Black-quarterback-in-the-Hall-of-Fame Warren Moon — had to play six seasons in Canada because of the prejudice in football at the time. Things have obviously changed over the years, with the emergence of Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott, but it’s relatively new territory to entrust a Black quarterback as the game manager, the quarterback who isn’t great, but isn’t bad either.
Dobbs’ intelligence as a Black quarterback being publicly recognized is something rare in sports.
But as Jones said, being smart is only a portion of what makes Dobbs special.
“I know he’s very, very smart,” O’Connell said after Sunday’s game. “But I can tell you that what he was able to do in really five days’ time was as impressive as what I’ve seen a quarterback do.”