Tennessee quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara called six-year journeyman Joshua Dobbs hours after a loss on Christmas Eve, asking him to come to the team headquarters on Christmas Day.
Though he had signed just four days earlier, the Titans decided to turn the offense over to Dobbs and coach Mike Vrabel insisted the game plan would remain the same.
Well, it really didn’t. It couldn’t.
Dobbs was just one of many quarterbacks thrown into the heat of battle due to a rash of injuries at the league’s premier position, making devising a game plan even more challenging. Those offensive schemes are tailored around the projected starter with opponents plotting to derail those plans.
Yet league-wide, injuries force continual changes. So coaches and coordinators on both sides of the ball have had to be even more flexible, adapting often at a moment’s notice.
It’s not lost on the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles heading into the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Back in December with a playoff berth slipping away, the Titans gambled their postseason streak on Dobbs, going with him over a rookie with three starts and with veteran Ryan Tannehill sidelined by an injury.
The Titans joined a list of 13 franchises starting three quarterbacks, the most ever in the league’s second 17-game season.
The teams squaring off for the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday didn’t have those problems: Patrick Mahomes started every game this season for Kansas City, while Jalen Hurts rested his sore shoulder sitting out two games for the Eagles.
Dobbs had just a handful of practices and a couple of walkthroughs — half as the backup — since signing with Tennessee. A third-round pick, Malik Willis was protected in his first NFL start, throwing only once after halftime with Derrick Henry running for 219 yards in a win in Houston.
Thanks to his experience from previous NFL stops, Dobbs helped the Titans use a game plan that resembled an actual passing offense. Dobbs was much more decisive, allowing him to throw quicker and he had nearly as many yards passing in his first start than Willis had combined in his three.
“Him just being able to see on some of the quick throws or three-steppers, Josh was able to stand in the pocket, being able to deliver it in a timely matter,” Titans veteran receiver Robert Woods said of Dobbs.
The starting quarterback gets most of the snaps with the first-team offense, limiting the backup to running the scout team and no chance to build chemistry with the starters.
That means the backup must do everything else to try to be ready if needed. That includes studying the game plan and watching both film and practice closely. Kliff Kingsbury was fired after Arizona went 4-13 using four quarterbacks once Kyler Murray tore his ACL.
Kingsbury said that’s the job.
“They have to get all the mental reps they can, all the walkthroughs they can and then go out there and try to perform at a high level,” Kingsbury said of backup QBs during the season before his firing.
Miami made the playoffs despite also starting three different quarterbacks with Tua Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater and rookie Skylar Thompson each starting at least two games during the regular season.
First-year coach Mike McDaniel and his coordinator drew up different game plans for Bridgewater and Thompson later in the season.
Playing AFC East rival Buffalo in the wild-card round also helped.
“That gives you a little liberty to have some variance in your plan for each particular quarterback, and then when you get concrete clarity, you have one direction for your entire team to kind of go by and that’s what you stick with,” McDaniel said before Miami’s playoff loss to Buffalo.
Preparing for different quarterbacks means similar adjustments on defense. Jeffery Simmons, the Titans’ two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman, said he needs to know if the potential quarterback stays in the pocket like Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady or scrambles like Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.
“My job is to win up front and then focus on the quarterback,” Simmons said.
Defensive coaches and defenders pull film of the potential quarterbacks, even if it means going back to last season. They study the opponent’s offensive scheme as well.
That’s why the Bills looked at all three Dolphins quarterbacks. Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier also made sure to focus on Miami’s other offensive playmakers such as wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
“That definitely presents different challenges when you don’t know who the starting quarterback will be,” Frazier said before Buffalo’s playoff opener. “But we do know who some of the other pieces are, and where they’ll line up at.”
And with the odds of the starting quarterback not finishing the game, planning for the other playmakers was probably a team’s best option.
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, David Brandt and Alanis Thames contributed to this report.
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