Dobbs’ variable journey to Vikings hasn’t been without some constants

Stephanie and Robert Dobbs attend all of their son's football games. They had seen their only child, Joshua, play in many SEC and NFL stadiums around the country, but not the one roughly 25 miles south of their home in Alpharetta, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta.

Dobbs grew up a Falcons fan. He spent his childhood watching Michael Vick and Matt Ryan from the stands of the old Georgia Dome. As an NFL rookie, he visited its replacement, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to support his alma mater, Tennessee, in their 2017 season opener against Georgia Tech. He twice visited as an NFL backup, but did not play.

His third visit as an NFL backup came last Sunday, when Dobbs replaced an injured Jaren Hall just five days after being traded to Minnesota from Arizona and lifted the Vikings to a 31-28 victory over the Falcons. Electric runs preceded a game-winning touchdown pass in the closing seconds. Mom and Dad were behind the Vikings bench in the stands.

"The uniqueness of all these years being in the Alpharetta-Atlanta area that he would finally get an opportunity to play on that field, and of course help his team win the game, was fantastic," Stephanie Dobbs said.

Dobbs' sinuous NFL journey has brought him to Minnesota — his ninth move and seventh team — where he's guaranteed at least Sunday's start against the Saints after a win that Vikings coaches, players, fans and the Dobbs family won't soon forget.

Family, former coaches and teammates say they weren't surprised by Dobbs' heroics without having practiced much of the Vikings playbook. They've long known his impressive intellect and discipline, nurtured by growth-minded parents and proved by quarterbacking the Volunteers while also finishing a five-year aeronautical engineering program in four years with a perfect 4.0 GPA.

Dobbs also has a history of seamlessly changing teams with an unwavering calm, necessary for when NFL teams throw you into orbit.

Sunday he will become the second NFL quarterback since 1950 to start for three different teams in a calendar year. His life, though, is pretty much the same, he said.

"Still staying across the street and living out of a suitcase and everything," he said. "My car made it from Arizona, first thing that made it up here. We'll piecemeal life outside of the building together."

'A leader of men'

Dobbs' game-worn, white No. 15 Vikings jersey now resides in Alpharetta, a gift to parents — Stephanie, a former UPS executive, and Robert, a banking executive — who set a high standard and always wanted to see him find his passion. Through grade school, Dobbs participated in the debate team, band and three sports.

By the time he was a teenager, Dobbs' perfect school attendance since kindergarten was so important to him that he didn't leave for college recruiting visits until after 1 p.m. on Friday, when he would be credited with a full day. His parents' attendance was also spotless.

"Whether it was travel baseball growing up, or Tennessee versus Oregon my freshman year in Eugene, Oregon," Dobbs said. "I was redshirting and my parents were there supporting. I have a really supportive family, so it was really cool to share [last Sunday] with them."

The Dobbs family often traveled, including annual scouting trips to various colleges since Joshua was an infant. From an early age, he loved airplanes and airports.

"We had to get there two to three hours before for him to get his fix watching the planes come in," Stephanie Dobbs said. "It was easy to see what he was going to have an interest in. Once we found he was excellent in math, [aeronautical engineering] was a perfect fit."

Higher-level math courses were a driving force for Dobbs transferring from private school back to Alpharetta High School before his junior year.

That's when Dobbs was first thrown into the football fire, recalled former Alpharetta head coach Jason Dukes. Dobbs joined a 6A team, Georgia's highest level, midway through the summer and competed with an older, incumbent starter who was the locker room favorite.

"It was almost like the same situation," Dukes said. "We were splitting time between the two in the first game of the regular season. He stepped in, drove us down the field over and over."

Dobbs threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds left. He started the next 21 games through his junior and senior seasons.

"He's a leader of men," Dukes said, "and has always been super mature and calm under pressure."

Driven by more than football

After scoring 39 touchdowns — 29 throwing, 10 rushing — as a senior, Dobbs was a four-star recruit in football, his preferred sport, and a coveted infielder by college baseball. But he needed an undergraduate aeronautical engineering program, which "weeded several schools out," Stephanie Dobbs said, and a coaching staff willing to accommodate intense off-field demands.

Sign up for our Vikings Update newsletter

Dobbs wanted to go to Stanford, but was only offered a baseball scholarship and walk-on spot on the football team. Princeton offered him spots on both teams. He committed to Arizona State, one of the top engineering programs. Then Tennessee came calling just weeks before signing day. Then-head coach Butch Jones was just hired and needed another passer. He took two assistants to Alpharetta.

"It's the longest home visit I've ever had," Jones said. "His mom is brilliant, dad is brilliant, but mom had studied the NCAA rulebook, and it was sitting there when I got there."

She studied the NCAA rulebook?

"I think coach Jones may be exaggerating on that one," Stephanie Dobbs said.

But Stephanie and Robert challenged recruiters to pitch academic resources available, and specifically how Dobbs would attend all classes necessary to complete a five-year program in four years. Before flipping to Tennessee, Dobbs met with academic advisers and an engineering professor. To get him to sign, Tennessee went as far as scheduling a weekly one-on-one class between Dobbs and a professor whose regular class time conflicted with Volunteers practice.

"I've been doing this a long time," said the 55-year-old Jones, now coaching at Arkansas State, "and that was the first time and only time I've had to [pitch aeronautical engineering]."

Dobbs' play didn't suffer due to his studies, said former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, even when he was thrown into action as a true freshman in 2013.

"You'd see him studying on road trips," Bajakian said, "but the most amazing thing is, you barely noticed it, because he did such a good job of handling the volume."

Dobbs replaced starter Nathan Peterman in 2014 and didn't look back, finishing 4-1. His first start that season was a breakout game at South Carolina, where he led a 45-42 overtime win with 467 yards — 301 passing, 166 rushing — and five touchdowns, including three rushing.

"That game really opened up a lot of eyes for him," said Josh Malone, his friend and former Volunteers receiver. "We were never really out of a game with Dobbs."

Tennessee went 9-4 each of the next two years. Dobbs routinely made the kind of game-changing runs that stirred memories for Malone last week, when he watched Dobbs spin out of a sack, avoid the blitz and run down the sideline for a first down.

"We saw that all the time at Tennessee," Malone said. "He really did it all for us and was the reason we won as many games as we did."

Life of an NFL nomad

After making eight starts for the Cardinals, Dobbs was dealt to Minnesota on Oct. 31, the third trade of his seven-year NFL career. He said the Vikings and Cleveland were trying to acquire him.

A 2017 fourth-round pick by the Steelers, Dobbs has done two stints with Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, a former Vikings coordinator — first during the 2022 season and this spring and summer before Cleveland traded Dobbs to Arizona on Aug. 24.

Dobbs has been helped by the Browns and Cardinals systems overlapping with the Vikings and similar influences from the Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan coaching trees.

There's also the familiarity with being the new guy in the locker room.

"He's done this before," Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. "Having to come in and learn on the fly and learn the game plan maybe not A to Z, but S to Z. And he was very calm throughout."

When the Steelers traded Dobbs to Jacksonville in 2019, Vikings tight end Josh Oliver, then a Jaguars rookie, first saw the quarterback transition seamlessly into a new team and new offense.

"He's such a smart dude able to handle being thrown into a new playbook so easily," Oliver said, "and he makes it look easy, which it's not."

The Jaguars cut him a year later. The Steelers claimed him off waivers. He spent another year behind Ben Roethlisberger and one year on injured reserve. The Browns signed him in the 2022 offseason, then cut him around Thanksgiving when Deshaun Watson returned from suspension.

The next week, Dobbs joined Detroit's practice squad. That lasted 16 days; on the 15th day, he told then-Lions receiver Brandon Zylstra he'd see him at practice the next day but never did. The Titans had signed Dobbs off the Lions practice squad.

"Was he really there 16 days?" Zylstra said. "It felt like a week, because he was there, and then all of a sudden, he wasn't."

Two weeks later, Dobbs replaced an injured Ryan Tannehill in his first NFL start at the end of his sixth season.

Now, he's preparing for his 11th NFL start, the first of what could be many in Minnesota.

"He's been wanting to play for the longest time," Malone said. "It's probably not the perfect moment he envisioned with the circumstances and bouncing around, but when it comes to playing, this is the moment he's been waiting for. I know he'll take advantage."

Joshua Dobbs' NFL journey

The Vikings are Dobbs' seventh NFL team since he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers out of Tennessee in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. Here are all his stops along the way:

April 29, 2017-Sept. 9, 2019: Pittsburgh Steelers

Sept. 9, 2019-Sept. 5, 2020: Jacksonville Jaguars

Sept. 6, 2020-March 16, 2022: Pittsburgh Steelers

April 8, 2022-Nov. 28, 2022: Cleveland Browns

Dec. 5-Dec. 21, 2022: Detroit Lions

Dec. 21, 2022-Jan. 7, 2023: Tennessee Titans

March 23-Aug. 24: Cleveland Browns

Aug. 24-Oct. 31: Arizona Cardinals

Oct. 31-present: Minnesota Vikings