MINNEAPOLIS — This is what belief looks like, believing something is possible, then watching it evaporate in plain sight.
Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell stared at the developing play. His eyes widened as rookie receiver Jordan Addison passed a Chicago Bears defender and ran down the left side of the field. A deep shot flew past O’Connell, whose eyes turned to the midfielder. Josh Dobbs stepped up in the pocket and fired a pass.
As the football sailed down the left sideline toward a wide-open Addison — but too small and out of play — O’Connell fell to his knees. He wiped his face as if he had been wronged. In a sense, he had.
It wasn’t long until Dobbs, acquired at the trade deadline to replace injured player Kirk Cousins, was impressing for these Vikings. Over the course of two weeks, he shrugged off defenders, paraded with intensity and injected a sense of belief into a desperate fanbase.
And now, there he was this. Disappointment that falls to your knees. The inaccuracy is difficult to decipher. Poor security on the ball.
The long incompletion between Dobbs and Addison represented the painful reality of Minnesota’s 12-10 loss Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Dobbs threw four interceptions, and his confidence was broken to the point of not playing aggressively on the team’s final drive.
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“It’s a pretty devastated locker room right now,” O’Connell said afterward. “We did not perform as we wanted offensively.”
The result clouds the Vikings’ future even further. First, there’s the playoff picture. Minnesota (6-6) still holds the seventh seed in the NFC, but the gap has narrowed. Green Bay and Los Angeles are nipping at his heels.
Then there’s the conversation surrounding which quarterback will lead the Vikings as they try to get their ticket to the dance. By the end of Monday’s contest, O’Connell was already thinking along these lines. When asked afterward about his plan as Minnesota heads into its bye week and then a trip to Las Vegas, O’Connell spoke in a noncommittal tone and said he and his staff would review the slate for Dobbs’ four games as the Vikings’ quarterback.
“We’ll take a look (at it),” O’Connell said. “Jaren (Hall) is available to us again and Nick Mullins is also available.”
Although Dobbs completed a go-ahead 17-yard touchdown pass to TJ Hockenson late in the fourth quarter, the journeyman quarterback known as “Busternaut” had dug a deep hole, specifically in the turnover department. After last week’s game loss to the Denver Broncos in which Dobbs had an interception and fumbled, he said he considers maintaining possession central to all his “dreams, hopes and aspirations.”
But those dreams were shattered on Monday. Dobbs’ first interception came in the second quarter. Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson reacted as if he was covering a short route in the flat. Dobbs made a pass over Johnson that he hoped would hit Addison in a small window near the sideline. Instead, Johnson backed away from his initial charge, jumped and caught the ball.
“I was decorated,” Dobbs said. “He (Johnson) did a good job of getting up and down.”
Dobbs’ second interception came several minutes later. Addison was isolated on the left side of the formation on third-and-4 near midfield. He evaded body coverage from the corner and raced towards the middle of the field. Dobbs fired the ball Addison’s way, but it arrived a split second before the receiver could turn his head. The ball bounced off Addison and into the hands of Bears defensive back Jaquan Brisker.
The last two interceptions were also the byproduct of tipped passes. Late in the third quarter, Dobbs threaded a pass into a tight window toward wide receiver KJ Osborne on fourth-and-2. The ball ended up in the hands of linebacker TJ Edwards. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Dobbs threw a pass to linebacker C.J. Hamm. It went in and out of Bears lineman Justin Jones’ hands, but defensive back Kyler Gordon scooped it up before the ball hit the turf.
“I can’t jeopardize the ball,” Dobbs said. “It’s a fine line.”
But Minnesota’s lack of accuracy wasn’t limited to its turnover. Looking for a spark early in the third quarter, and after seeing the way the Vikings defense limited the Bears’ offense, O’Connell rolled the dice on fourth-and-7 near midfield. Dobbs dropped back and threw a half-step pass behind Hockenson on an outside route. The tight end rushed toward the first down marker but came within a half-yard.
Recalling the play after the game, O’Connell mentioned Dobbs’ movements and wondered aloud what the score might have been had Dobbs set his feet more quickly and thrown the pass to Hockenson earlier. O’Connell then reworked what he described as a “long foul ball” – the aforementioned foul of Addison’s line down the sideline.
“The rhythm and timing of our offense wasn’t as clear as we wanted it to be,” O’Connell said.
Once again, Brian Flores’ defense gave the Vikings a chance. The Bears opted for a short passing game, and although quarterback Justin Fields completed 27 of 37 passes for 217 yards, it was mostly Minnesota that dictated the action. Edge rusher Danielle Hunter and safety Josh Metellus created opportunities for the Vikings’ offense by forcing two field fumbles in the fourth quarter. The second, which occurred with 3:28 remaining in the game, put the Vikings in prime position to secure the win.
At that point, Minnesota led 10-9 and had the ball at the Chicago 43. The Bears only had two timeouts remaining. O’Connell has weighed his options. He took into account Dobbs’ performance so far and decided to mitigate the risk. The plan: Try to run the ball, force the Bears to use their timeouts and gain enough yards on third down to get kicker Greg Joseph out for a field goal attempt.
The Vikings ran the ball twice and totaled one yard. On third-and-9, Dobbs had the ability to change the original play and push the ball down the field depending on what the Bears defense showed. They aligned themselves with deep safety measures, convincing the Vikings to take a more conservative stance. Minnesota lost a yard on the play.
Punter Ryan Wright couldn’t pin the Bears deep. Fields then used his legs and punished Flores’ offense on third down, leading to the Bears’ victory.
“You’re fighting this battle between being aggressive and risking giving them a short field if we turn it over again,” O’Connell said. “Then it was about confidence in our defence, which is what really got us to this point in the game the last couple of weeks.”
O’Connell’s concern about Dobbs turning the ball over in a critical situation is a sign of the uncertainty surrounding the team’s future at the position. It also helps explain his playing style throughout the game.
O’Connell tried to be aggressive early with a deep shot on the first play. He tried to pin Dobbs when the offense started to go off the rails. He also thought about managing the football more but realized that regressions, given the way Dobbs was playing, would not bode well.
“It’s a battle,” O’Connell said.
When Monday night’s fight was over, Addison leaned back in his chair and faced his locker. A towel was wrapped over his head. He sat motionless.
A few yards away, Dobbs sat in full uniform and faced the locker room that had celebrated him just a few weeks earlier. He stared expressionlessly, as all his dreams, hopes and aspirations hung in the balance.
(Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)
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